Olympic flame handover ceremony delivers message of unity

The scaled-down ceremony in Athens featured gold medallists, emotional addresses, and a message of hope and solidarity, with the flame now set to travel to Japan.

By Andrew Binner

The Olympic flag was hoisted, and the national anthems of Japan and Greece sounded, as the Olympic flame handover ceremony took place at Athens’ iconic Panathenaic Stadium.

The event, which began at 11:30am local time on Thursday (19th March) in windy but sunny conditions, was significantly scaled down due to the coronavirus pandemic, and didn't include the planned cultural ceremonies from Greece or Japan.

But there was no lack of emotion, symbolism, or significance.

The Olympic Torch Relay through Greece preceding the handover was cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic, but two Greek priestesses entered the arena and watched on as Greece's gymnastics Olympic champion Eleftherios Petrounias brought the flame into the stadium.

He ran a lap of the historic track, before handing the torch to Olympic pole vault champion Katerina Stefanidi to light the cauldron.

Hellenic Olympic Committee President Spyros Capralos made an emotional address, centered around the flame's ability to bring harmony and unity.

"We bid farewell to the great Olympic symbol, which brings together humanity, antiquity and modern times," Capralos said.

"I wish to believe that the journey of the Olympic flame in your country will offer joy and hope to the people of the whole world, who are currently in pain and challenged." - Hellenic Olympic Committee President Spyros Capralos

The Olympic Torch Relay’s slogan is Hope Lights Our Way - a particularly fitting message amidst the coronavirus outbreak.

Capralos’ Japanese counterpart Yoshiro Mori made his speech via video, expressing his regret at having to cancel the dance performance of 140 Japanese children to celebrate the handover of the flame, while highlighting the unity between Greece and Japan.

Former Japanese Olympic swimmer Naoko Imoto, who lives in Greece, received the flame from the Hellenic Olympic Committee on behalf of the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee, before transferring it to the bespoke, rose-gold lantern which will transport it to Japan.

Since retiring from competition, Naoko has contributed to humanitarian efforts as a UN official in several countries including Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Rwanda.

Athens 2004 gold medallists Tadahiro Nomura (judo) and Saori Yoshida (freestyle wrestling), initially chosen to carry the torch in Athens, dialled in from Japan to express their excitement over video that the flame was making its way to Japan.

"I am sorry that I will be unable to participate in the Olympic handover ceremony," Yoshida said.

"However right now, athletes around the world are practicing hard in preparation for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. I am really looking forward to seeing the Olympic flame carrying their hopes on its journey across Japan."

What's next?

On Friday 20 March, Tokyo 2020 Go, the airplane decorated with pictograms used to represent the Olympic torchbearers on the body of the aircraft, will transport the flame to Japan.

The Olympic Torch Relay across Japan will feature 10,000 runners, and will begin in Fukushima, the area that was devastated by the 2011 earthquake and subsequent nuclear disaster.

It will also coincide with the blooming cherry tree blossoms, for which Japan is so famous.