Paralympic flame ceremonies begin as coronavirus cases surge in Japan

Japan held its first Paralympic flame-lighting ceremonies on Thursday, with athletes waiting to learn whether spectators will be in the stands as the country battles a spike in virus cases.

Tokyo is under a fourth state of emergency that will last until at least the end of the month, when the Paralympics should be in full swing.   -  REUTERS

Japan held its first Paralympic flame-lighting ceremonies on Thursday, with athletes waiting to learn whether spectators will be in the stands as the country battles a spike in virus cases.

Fans were banned from almost all venues at the pandemic-postponed Tokyo Olympics, which ended on Sunday, while athletes faced restrictions on movement and were tested daily.

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

Although Japan has seen a comparatively small Covid-19 outbreak overall, with around 15,300 deaths, the latest wave driven by the more infectious Delta variant is pushing daily case numbers to new records.

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Tokyo and five other regions are currently under a virus state of emergency, which bans bars and restaurants from serving alcohol and asks them to close by 8 pm.

Instead of a traditional relay on public roads, "torch-kiss" Paralympic flame-lighting events will be held in towns and cities across Japan over the next week, with the flame transferred from torch to torch.

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

"We had planned to hold the Paralympic torch relay in Tokyo with some 700 torchbearers," said Tokyo Metropolitan Government official Koichi Osakabe.

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"But because of the state of emergency, we decided not to do the relay on public roads."

The emergency measures are scheduled to last until the end of August. Similar "quasi-emergency" measures are in place in other regions where cases are rising.

The remote city of Tono in Japan's northern Iwate region decided to open its Paralympic flame ceremony to the public and was expecting a small crowd of around 50 people, including officials.

"We wanted to have a diverse group of people, young and old, non-Japanese nationals and those with disabilities, to take part in the event," the city official in charge of the ceremony told AFP.

"We did not advertise the ceremony. We will take thorough anti-infection measures, of course."

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

At the Tokyo Olympics, organisers reported 511 positive cases, mostly among residents, with one so-called "cluster", in the Greek artistic swimming team.

Olympics organisers have denied any connection to rising virus cases in Tokyo, although some experts argue that holding the Games undermined the government's messaging on virus risks.

Around 35 per cent of Japan's population are fully vaccinated, including more than 80 per cent of the over 65s.

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