TOKYO – The Tokyo Olympic torch relay ran into big trouble on Thursday when the governor of Osaka prefecture and the mayor of the city of Osaka asked that relay legs going through the city be canceled with the games opening in less than four months.
The prefecture and two others were selected on Thursday to come under strict new measures to counter rising cases of COVID-19. The new rules go into force on Monday and last until May 5.
“When I watch the torch relay elsewhere in Japan, people tend to gather and those places get crowded," Osaka Mayor Ichiro Matsui said Thursday. "It’s very unfortunate but I think we should call it off.”
Osaka Governor Hirofumi Yoshimura echoed the mayor: "I think the torch relay through the middle of Osaka should be canceled.”
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga suggested on Thursday that the Osaka relay was off. But Tokyo organizers quickly said that was not the case and a decision had not yet been made.
“We will continue to hold close discussions with the Osaka prefectural authorities regarding the implementation of the Olympic torch relay and strive to announce the outcome as soon as possible,” organizers said in a statement.
The Olympic torch relay started on March 25 in northeastern Fukushima prefecture, and organizers have asked fans to social distance, wear masks and limit cheering.
Organizers said before it began that they would reroute the relay if they had to, but any delay is a reminder of the risks of crisscrossing the country for four months with 10,000 runners.
The relay ends at the opening ceremony on July 23 in Tokyo.
Any glitch also puts the focus on the massive challenge of holding the postponed Olympics and Paralympics in a pandemic with 15,400 athletes entering Japan accompanied by tens of thousands of staff, officials, media and broadcasters. Organizers have banned fans from abroad, who had bought about 600,000 tickets of 7.8 million that were to be available. Local fans purchased about 4.4 million, and many will be allowed to attend.
The torch relay is scheduled to arrive in Osaka prefecture on April 13 and will go through the city on April 14.
Experts have raised concerns about Osaka’s rapid spike and the burden on its medical infrastructure. An international figure skating event is scheduled for mid-April in the city of Osaka.
Japan had 474,773 cases and 9,162 deaths as of Wednesday, according to the health ministry. Osaka reported 599 daily new cases Wednesday, surpassing Tokyo’s 414.
Japan has handled the virus better than many countries, but not as well as most in Asia.
Dr. Ryuji Wakita, director-general of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases and the head of a government COVID-19 advisory board, said Wednesday that a new upsurge has already started in parts of the country, including western and northern Japan.
He said infections from new variants of the virus believed to be more contagious are rapidly on the rise in the Osaka region.
Olympic organizers have said they will reroute or cancel legs if needed.
Many medical experts have questioned going ahead with the relay and the Olympics, explaining this is taking an unnecessary risk.
AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/olympic-games and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports