The Olympic flame arrived in Tokyo on Friday, greeted by a much more muted ceremony than in the past as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt the event's honored traditions.
Athletes and fans mourned a "heartbreaking" decision to bar spectators from almost all venues over the virus. In a taste of what is to come for thousands of athletes who will compete at the pandemic-postponed Games, the public was kept away from the arrival of the flame and a welcoming ceremony was attended only by the media and officials.
As the final countdown to the July 23 opening ceremony begins, the mood is far from the usual festive Olympic spirit.
Tokyo will be under a virus state of emergency from Sunday until Aug. 22, putting a further dampener on an already unusual Olympics. The measures, which mostly limit alcohol sales, restaurant opening hours and crowd sizes, come as infections rise in the capital and with authorities concerned about the spread of the delta variant.
Given the decision, organizers said Thursday they would bar spectators from venues in Tokyo and three surrounding areas, where most competitions will happen. A handful of events will be held elsewhere in the country with some fans in attendance.
The move disappointed fans and athletes alike, with Australian tennis star Nick Kyrgios saying it tipped the scale as he wavered on whether to compete. "The thought of playing in front of empty stadiums just doesn't sit right with me. It never has," he said on social media, announcing his withdrawal.
But others said they were grateful for the chance to take part, with U.S. swimmer Katie Ledecky saying the Games would still be "a really beautiful thing."
In Tokyo, Governor Yuriko Koike received the Olympic flame in a lantern at a ceremony in an empty stadium. The nationwide torch relay was supposed to stoke excitement about the Games, but almost half the legs have been taken off public roads or otherwise altered because of virus concerns. Despite the disruptions, Koike said the flame's passage offered "hope" that she said torchbearers would "carry into the Olympic stadium."
When the cauldron is lit on July 23, only dignitaries and officials will be in the stands at the 68,000-capacity National Stadium in central Tokyo.
On Thursday night, Koike told reporters she felt "heartbreaking grief" about the decision to bar fans, but organizers said they had no choice given the rise in infections and new emergency measures.
Japan has so far recorded around 14,900 virus deaths, despite avoiding harsh lockdowns, and organizers had hoped to have up to 10,000 local fans in venues after being forced to bar overseas spectators. The spread of the more contagious delta variant, paired with a comparatively low vaccination rate – just 16% of the population is fully vaccinated – put paid to those plans.
The financial impact of the decision is comparatively small, with projected revenues for all Olympic and Paralympic tickets accounting for just around $800 million compared to an approximately $15 billion Tokyo 2020 budget. A decision on Paralympic spectators will be made after the Olympics end.
The move left a sour taste for Natsuko Kamioka, who had tickets to take her son to the men's volleyball quarterfinals. "They've avoided canceling the Games, but they haven't been left with a good outcome. No one is happy," she told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
Olympic "superfan" Kyoko Ishikawa, who has attended every Summer Games in the past three decades, was more sanguine. "It's not getting me down," said Ishikawa, who has become a familiar face at Olympic venues over the years in her traditional Japanese outfit and "hachimaki" headband. "Now, what I have to do is ask how I can still create an opportunity to connect people around the world through the Olympic Games."
And French decathlete Kevin Mayer, who won silver in Rio 2016, said the roar of crowds was only one aspect of competition. "They are taking away part of the joy of sport," he told a press conference. "But we should not forget why we play sports."
"I'm being given the opportunity to express myself in a way not given to everyone, in the biggest competition that exists."
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