Paralympic Games: Torch ceremonies begin as virus bursts into Japan

TOKYO (AFP, REUTERS) – Japan held its first Paralympic flame-lighting ceremonies on Thursday, August 12, with athletes waiting to see if spectators will be in the stands as the country battles a spike in cases of the virus.

Fans were banned from nearly all venues for the postponed Tokyo Olympics in the event of a pandemic, which ended last Sunday, while athletes faced movement restrictions and were tested daily.

The Paralympic Games are expected to take place under similar conditions when they begin on August 24, Japanese media have said, with an official spectator decision expected early next week.

Although Japan has experienced a relatively small Covid-19 epidemic overall, with around 15,300 deaths, the latest wave driven by the more infectious Delta variant is pushing the number of daily cases to new records.

Tokyo and five other regions are currently under a viral emergency, which bans bars and restaurants from serving alcohol and asks them to close before 8 p.m.

Instead of a traditional relay on public roads, Paralympic “torch kiss” flame-lighting events will take place in towns and villages across Japan over the next week, with the flame being transferred from torch to torch.

The flames will be brought to Tokyo and combined, but plans to have spectators along the route of a relay in the capital have been scrapped, a city government official told AFP.

“We had planned to organize the Paralympic Torch Relay in Tokyo with some 700 torchbearers,” said Koichi Osakabe, head of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

“But because of the state of emergency, we decided not to relay on the public highway.”

Emergency measures are expected to last until the end of August. Similar “near-emergency” measures are in place in other areas where cases are on the rise.

The remote town of Tono in the Iwate region of northern Japan decided to open its Paralympic torch ceremony to the public and expected a small crowd of around 50 people, including officials.

“We wanted a diverse group of people, young and old, non-Japanese and people with disabilities, to participate in the event,” the city official in charge of the ceremony told AFP.

“We haven’t done any publicity for the ceremony. We’ll be taking extensive anti-infective measures, of course.”

Approximately 4,000 Paralympians and 12,000 officials, staff and overseas media will be in Japan for the Games.