Tokyo Olympic torch relay to begin amid COVID-19 fears

Mar 25 , 2021. 18 minutes ago – 09:45 By Ayano Shimizu, KYODO NEWS

Seiko Hashimoto, president of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic organizing committee, speaks at an opening ceremony of the nationwide torch relay at the J-Village soccer training center in Fukushima on March 25, 2021. (Kyodo)

IWAKI – The torch relay for the Tokyo Olympics will start Thursday in Japan’s northeastern prefecture of Fukushima, as organizers try to build momentum for the opening of the global sporting event in late July amid public health worries over the coronavirus pandemic.

The opening ceremony of the nationwide relay at the J-Village soccer training center was held without spectators and was only attended by a limited number of people as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus, a year since the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics were pushed back due to the global health crisis.

About 10,000 torchbearers will run through 859 municipalities in Japan’s 47 prefectures, with parts of the 121-day journey encompassing famous locations such as Mt. Fuji, while unprecedented measures will be taken to protect the health of participants and spectators.

The torch relay will be a crucial opportunity for the organizing committee to convince people in Japan that it is capable of safely staging the games, expected to involve over 15,000 athletes, even during the pandemic.

“The flame will embark on a 121-day journey, carrying people’s hopes and wishes for world peace across Japan,” Seiko Hashimoto, president of the organizing committee, said at the ceremony.

The committee has said the relay might be suspended, or some routes of the program may be skipped, if too many people gather on roadsides. Fans are encouraged to turn to live online broadcasts and refrain from traveling outside of their home prefectures to watch the relay.

Spectators must wear face masks and are also urged to clap rather than cheer. The runners, who will each carry a cherry blossom-motif torch over a distance of about 200 meters, are required to log their health information and asked not to dine out with others.

Held under the concept of “Hope Lights Our Way,” the relay will begin in Fukushima in a bid to showcase the progress Japan has made with the reconstruction of its northeastern region ravaged by the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster.

Members of Nadeshiko Japan soccer team that won the 2011 Women’s World Cup will carry the torch at the J-Village sports complex, which served as a frontline base in the battle against the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant just some 20 kilometers away.

The 1.2-kilogram torch is partially crafted from recycled aluminum used for building prefabricated housing units in the region following the massive quake.

After the Olympic flame arrived from Greece last year, it was exhibited around the country, including at the Japan Olympic Museum in Tokyo where it drew over 12,000 people in two months.

In an Olympic first, the torches will burn hydrogen, an element that emits no carbon dioxide, as fuel in some relay segments to show the Japanese organizers’ commitment to environmental sustainability.

Even though the games were pushed back for one year, the world is far from getting the virus under control, with the emergence of more contagious variants adding uncertainty to the prospect of returning to normal social activities.

Many people in Japan have voiced skepticism over whether the Olympics can be staged safely in just four months time.

In any case, the games will look completely different from previous editions and will not offer the opportunity for people from around the world to come together and interact.

On Saturday, the International Olympic Committee and other organizing bodies made the unprecedented decision to hold the Tokyo Games without overseas spectators.

According to a Kyodo News poll conducted over the weekend, only 23.2 percent said the Olympics and Paralympics should go ahead this summer, while 39.8 percent thought they should be canceled.

The Olympic flame was lit in Greece on March 12, 2020, at a ceremony without spectators. Then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and IOC chief Thomas Bach agreed to reschedule the games on March 24, just two days before the Japanese leg of the relay was slated to begin.

After traveling to 26 municipalities in Fukushima, the flame will head south, reaching the subtropical island prefecture of Okinawa around the start of May before working its way to Hokkaido at the other end of the country and then to Tokyo.

Before entering the opening ceremony on July 23 at the National Stadium, it will pass by various famous tourist attractions, including Todaiji temple in Nara, with its 15-meter-high Great Buddha statue, and Hiroshima’s Atomic Bomb Dome, the skeletal remains of a building preserved as a memorial after the 1945 explosion over the city.