Tokyo 2020 Olympic Torch Relay Grand Start torchbearer Nadeshiko Japan, Japan’s women’s national soccer team, leads the torch relay in Naraha, Fukushima Prefecture, on Thursday. Photo: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Pool via AP
By STEPHEN WADE – Japan Today
The torch relay for the postponed Tokyo Olympics began its 121-day journey across Japan on Thursday and is headed toward the opening ceremony in Tokyo on July 23.
The relay began in northeastern Fukushima prefecture, the area that was devastated by the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and the meltdown of three nuclear reactors. About 18,000 died in the tragedy.
The first runner with the torch was Azusa Iwashimizu, a player from the Japan team that won the Women’s World Cup in 2011.
The opening ceremony for the start of the relay was held at J-Village, a soccer training site. The ceremony was closed to the public because of the fear of spreading COVID-19, but was shown on national television.
Fans were told to social-distance along the roadside as the torch passes, and they are to refrain from loud cheering. Organizers have said they will stop or reroute the relay if crowding becomes a problem during the four-month parade.
The relay is a big test for the upcoming Olympics with fear among the public that the event could spread the virus to rural and more isolated parts of the country. Vaccinations have not been rolled out yet in Japan to the general public. About 9,000 deaths in the country have been attributed to COVID-19.
About 10,000 runners are expected to take part, with the relay touching Japan’s 47 prefectures.
The relay is a prelude to the difficulties the Olympics and Paralympics will present with 15,400 athletes entering Japan, along with thousands of other officials, judges, VIPs, media, and broadcasters.
Organizers announced a few days ago that fans from abroad will be banned from attending the Olympics and Paralympics. Most volunteers from abroad have also been ruled out.
If the relay has problems, if COVID-19 cases pop up and if there are delays, it could send up red flags about the feasibility of holding the Olympics.
Here’s how seriously it’s being taken: Toshiro Muto, the CEO of the organizing committee and a former deputy governor of the Bank of Japan, is in charge of the relay and not a secondary department head.
It was exactly at the start of the relay a year ago that the Olympics were postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. It was the first postponement since the modern Olympic began in 1896.
HOPE LIGHTS OUR WAY
This is the event that organizers and the International Olympic Committee hope will help turn public opinion in Japan in favor of the Olympics. The slogan for the relay is “Hope Lights Our Way.” The notion is that the Olympics will be uplifting and a light at the end of the tunnel, which will allow Japan and the IOC to bask in the glow of the world returning to near-normal.
Sentiments expressed in polls in Japan so far are overwhelmingly negative with about 80% suggesting another delay or cancellation.
“We are fully aware that there still are people with anxieties around the Tokyo Olympic games,” Muto said Wednesday. He said people should be encouraged since many sports events in Japan are being held with fans attending.
The relay and the Olympics both stir fear that they could spread the virus. There is also opposition to the rising cost of staging the Olympics, now put officially at $15.4 billion. Several audits suggest it’s twice that much and a University of Oxford study says these are the most expensive Olympics on record.
The start of the relay is Fukushima Prefecture, the area of Japan that was devastated 10 years ago by an earthquake, tsunami and the related meltdown of three nuclear reactors. At least 18,000 died in the tragedy of March 11, 2011.
Until the Olympics were delayed for a year, the focus on the relay was to be on the rebuilding of the northeastern area. Much is still left to be done. Since the postponement, much of the public-relations focus has shifted to the global recovery from the pandemic.
Organizers are again trying to incorporate the rebuilding of the area into their messaging, aware that some residents feel the area has been overlooked and that the Olympics have siphoned off resources.
Seiko Hashimoto, the president of the Tokyo organizing committee, said Wednesday she hopes the relay will inspire “the affected people who still struggle to normalize their lives.”
The so-called Grand Start of the relay on Thursday was closed to the general public. Extensive precautions were in place, which included limiting the size of the staff coming from Tokyo. The capital is where COVID-19 has been most severe, and the fear is that the relay could spread it to rural Japan.
There was talk at first of canceling the relay. But it is heavily sponsored by Toyota and Coca-Cola. The relay was first rolled out in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
“We will work in close collaboration with the municipalities to avoid density along the roadside routes and venues to have a completely safe operation,” Hashimoto said.