Japan’s deputy prime minister has said the Tokyo Olympics are “cursed”, as speculation mounts that the Games will have to be postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Taro Aso, who has a history of making gaffes, told a parliamentary committee that the Olympics appeared to be blighted by world events every 40 years.

Japan had planned to host the summer and winter Olympics in 1940, but the second world war forced the cancellation of both Games.

Forty years later, many countries, including the US, China and Japan, boycotted the Moscow Olympics in protest at the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

“It’s a problem that’s happened every 40 years – it’s the cursed Olympics, and that’s a fact,” Aso said.

While Japanese officials and International Olympic Committee have repeatedly insisted the Games will go ahead as scheduled, Aso, who doubles as finance minister, said holding them this summer would “not make sense” if other countries were unable to send their athletes.

“As the prime minister [Shinzo Abe] said, it’s desirable to hold the Olympics in an environment where everyone feels safe and happy. But that’s not something Japan alone can decide.”

Tokyo 2020 organisers said a little-known Japanese swimmer who competed in the 1996 Atlanta Games would receive the Olympic torch during a scaled-back handover ceremony in Athens later on Thursday.

Naoko Imoto, who works in Greece for Unicef, had been approached by organisers after virus-related travel restrictions prevented a Japanese delegation from flying to Athens to receive the symbolic flame, which is due to arrive in Japan on Friday.

“We decided yesterday that we felt it was necessary for a Japanese person to undertake this role,” the organising committee’s chief executive, Toshiro Muto, told reporters.

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