In a brief ceremony closed to spectators in Athens’ Panathenaic stadium, site of the first modern Games in 1896, the torch was received by Tokyo Games representative Naoko Imoto.
It will arrive in Japan on Friday and kick off a domestic relay on March 26, with the Games set to take place from July 24-August 9.
A six-day torch relay through Greece was cancelled last week, with the country largely in lockdown having recorded 418 cases of the virus and five deaths.
The scale of the spreading coronavirus, which has infected more than 200,000 people and killed more than 8,700 across the world, has forced the cancellation of numerous sporting events, raising concerns about whether the Olympics will be able to open as planned.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Japanese government, however, have insisted the Games will go ahead and have publicly rejected any talk of cancellation or postponement.
In the absence of spectators, Olympic gymnastics champion Lefteris Petrounias ran a lap with the flame and Olympic pole vault champion Katerina Stefanidi lit a cauldron inside the all-marble Panathenaic stadium.
Greece’s Olympic Committee chief Spyros Capralos handed over the lit torch to the Japanese former Olympic swimmer Imoto.
The flame was then transferred into a small receptacle to travel to Japan aboard a special aircraft named “Tokyo 2020 Go.”
Only a few dozen officials were allowed into the central Athens stadium as the country has imposed strict measures to contain the spread of the virus.
Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou in a statement said the ancient Olympic values of “concord, goodwill, brotherhood … are the weapon to use” against the virus.
The eerie mood during the ceremony, which normally attracts thousands of Athenians and visitors, reflected the problems facing Tokyo 2020, with athletes and national Olympic committees questioning whether the Games should be held this year.
Despite the IOC’s commitment to the Games, several athletes have cast doubt on the quality of competitions in Tokyo, given that thousands cannot train at the moment due to restrictions placed upon them in many countries.
Tokyo Games chief Yoshiro Mori said in a video message he hoped the flame’s arrival would help lift Japan’s spirits.
“Tokyo 2020 commits to be in readiness for the Games as planned …,” Mori said. “The concept of the Tokyo relay is ‘Hope lights our way’. I hope that the light will shine on the hearts of people all over in Japan and that will shake off the dark clouds hanging over the earth.”
The plane carrying the flame will land at JASDF Matsushima Air Base in Miyagi Prefecture on Friday.
Everything about the arrival ceremony will be subdued. The flame is to be greeted by a few dignitaries, saluted by a flyover from an aerial acrobatic team if weather permits and then used to ignite a cauldron.
The burning vessel will be displayed in three northern prefectures before the official relay begins on March 26 from Fukushima prefecture, which was devastated nine years ago by an earthquake, tsunami and the meltdown of three nuclear reactors.
Thousands of people from the region are still in temporary housing and life has not returned to normal for many. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hopes to use the Olympics to crown his run as Japan’s longest-serving premier, and many suggest he may not be around if the games are put off and the economy slumps.
Taro Aso, the Japanese finance minister and former prime minister, characterised the Tokyo Games as the cursed Olympics when speaking on Wednesday in a parliamentary committee. Aso was born in 1940, the year Tokyo was to hold its first Olympics, which were called off because of World War II.
“This isn’t a phrase that the press could like to hear, but it’s true,” said Aso, who was a member of Japan’s shooting team at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
Aso pointed out that even as the situation in Japan and Asia improves, it’s worse globally.
“We certainly hope to have a situation where everyone can at least come to Japan feeling safe and happy,” Aso said. “But the question is how we do that. It is something that Japan alone cannot achieve, and I don’t have an answer to this.
Getting the flame to Japan represents a small victory for the IOC and local organisers.
Even if they don’t open the games on June 24, the burning flame could be used as a symbol particularly if the games are eventually delayed and a rallying point for the Japanese public.
In a conference call on Wednesday, IOC president Thomas Bach got support for holding course, but is also getting push back from athletes who can’t train, are confused about the qualification process, and worry about their health. Critics are also complaining about the unfairness of qualifying, which might give some athletes advantages over others.