Greece cancels Olympic torch relay over coronavirus fears

ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece's Olympic Committee said it had cancelled the remainder of the Olympic Torch relay through the country on Friday to avoid attracting crowds that could raise the risk of coronavirus contagion.

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics torch relay got under way on Thursday when the flame was lit by the rays of the sun in ancient Olympia in a ceremony that was scaled down in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

The flame's journey in Greece had been due to last seven days. On Friday it arrived in the Peloponnese town of Sparta, where Hollywood actors Billy Zane and Gerard Butler, star of the 2009 movie "300", also ran as a torchbearers.

Hundreds of people gathered to watch as the torch passed through.

The Hellenic Olympic Committee said the opening leg of the relay had attracted unexpectedly high crowds, forcing it to suspend the remaining stops after consultations with the Greek Health Ministry and the International Olympic Committee.

The handover of the flame to the Tokyo Games organisers will take place as scheduled in the Greek capital Athens on March 19 - without spectators.

"I hope it carries on. There was a time, when, you know, in the ancient days, all wars would stop for the Olympics," Zane told Reuters.

"It feels like we're at war collectively and the common enemy is corona. And it felt like perhaps for maybe even just this morning, the war stopped and some healing could occur."

By late Friday, Greece had registered 190 confirmed cases of coronavirus and one death.

The Japanese Olympic Committee said it will continue to collaborate closely with all relevant organisations to ensure the torch relay begins safely on March 26 and for a secure opening of the 2020 Games in July.

"Tokyo 2020 will bring the Olympic Flame back to Japan," it said. "The IOC and Tokyo 2020 ... will continue to stay in close collaboration with all relevant organisations as we prepare to deliver a safe and secure Tokyo 2020 Games opening on 24 July 2020 as planned."

(Reporting by Renee Maltezou, Hanna Rantala and Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Toby Davis)