Olympic flame in Japan but doubts grow

The Olympic flame arrived in Japan on Friday from Greece in a scaled-down ceremony at an air base in northern Japan.

The flame, carried in a special canister, touched down amid growing doubts if the Tokyo Games will open as scheduled on July 24 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Organisers and the International Olympic Committee say it will, but postponement or cancellation is viewed increasingly as a possible option.

The flame reached Japan aboard a white aircraft painted with the inscription "Tokyo 2020 Olympic Torch Relay" along its side. It was greeted on the tarmac by a small contingent of organising committee officials.

Two of Japan's most famous Olympians - three-time wresting gold medallist Saori Yoshida and three-time judo gold medallist Tadahiro Nomura - received the flame for the lighting ceremony.

The two climbed portable stairs and entered the aircraft before emerging with a tiny canister with a flame burning inside.

They handed it over at the base of the stairs to organising committee President Yoshiro Mori.

After Mori's brief acceptance speech in a gusting wind, the two did the honours of lighting a large cauldron on the tarmac of the air base.

The flame will stay in northern Japan for almost a week until the torch relay begins officially on March 26 from Fukushima prefecture.

This is the northeastern part of Japan, located about 250 kilometres from Tokyo, that was devastated by the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and meltdown of three nuclear reactors that has left many still living in temporary quarters.

Getting the flame to Japan represents a small victory for the IOC and local organisers, who maintain the Olympics will open on schedule followed by the Paralympics on August 25.

Even if they don't, the burning flame could be used as a symbol - particularly if the games are eventually delayed - and a rallying point for the Japanese public.

The four-month torch relay could be fraught with problems, particularly for sponsors who have invested millions for the publicity.

The torch relay in Greece, following the symbolic lighting on March 12, was stopped during the second day and did not resume because of large crowds.

Japanese organisers have asked crowds to be "restrained" and could stop or delay the relay if they can't be controlled.