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Over 50,000 flock to Japan Olympic torch event held in spite of virus

People line up to see the Tokyo Olympic flame on display at JR Sendai Station on March 21, 2020. (Mainichi/Daisuke Wada)

SENDAI -- Some 52,000 people flocked to JR Sendai Station in northeast Japan on March 21 to see the Olympic torch for the Tokyo Games as the flame was put on display ahead of the torch relay, creating an overly congested environment amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The flame was shown to the public as part of a traveling exhibition touring around Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures that were hit hard by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. The Miyagi Prefectural Government, which organized the event, expected around 10,000 people to show up at the station in the prefectural capital of Sendai. In reality, however, more than five times that number came to see the torch, forming a line stretching over 500 meters for several hours -- an environment in which the risk of virus transmissions were high.

In response, event co-host, the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, has announced that it would implement new rules for the torch exhibition from March 22, in which lines will be spaced apart by at least 1 meter, and in cases where event-goers create crowd congestion, organizers will consider an intermission period or calling off the display.

People take selfies with the Tokyo Olympic flame on display at JR Sendai Station on March 21, 2020. Those who are in the line to the left are seen using a hand sanitizer. (Mainichi/Daisuke Wada)

The event was held on an outdoor deck at JR Sendai Station's east exit on a passageway connecting to the west exit. The Olympic flame, which arrived in Japan on March 20, was used to light a larger version of the torch set up at the special stage. The display was opened to the public at around 1:30 p.m. the next day, and people waiting in the line were escorted to the front of the torch in groups of about 15. They each had one minute to take photos with the flame.

Shizue Toda, 67, a part-time worker in Sendai who waited for some 2 1/2 hours, told the Mainichi Shimbun, "I wanted to see the flame longer after waiting for so long, but I guess it can't be helped."

As the time passed, the line got longer and reached to the station's west exit, while people overcrowded the deck. The prefectural government stopped accepting new spectators at the end of the line at 4 p.m., three hours before the exhibition's scheduled closing time, and only permitted people to see the torch separated by bars as they passed by.

The Miyagi government mobilized some 90 people including volunteers for traffic control and called on spectators to move along quickly, but a representative said, "We underestimated the number. We didn't think this many people would come"

(Japanese original by Tadashi Murakami, Sports News Department)

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