Waves, Smiles but No Cheers As Olympic Torch Relay Kicks Off Under Pandemic Shadow

Olympic Torch
Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto looks on as actor Satomi Hishihara and Paralympian Aki Taguchi light the celebration cauldron on the first day of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic torch relay in Naraha, Fukushima prefecture, Japan March 25, 2021. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon/Pool

TOKYO/FUKUSHIMA ⸺ With waves, smiles and streamers, but no cheers, the Olympic torch relay kicked off on Thursday, beginning a four-month countdown to the postponed 2020 summer Games in Tokyo, the first ever organised during a deadly pandemic.

Casting a pall over celebrations already scaled back because of coronavirus prevention measures, North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles before the relay began in Fukushima, an area hit hard by the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster.

“For the past year, as the entire world underwent a difficult period, the Olympic flame was kept alive quietly but powerfully,” Tokyo 2020 president Seiko Hashimoto said at the opening ceremony, which was closed to spectators.

“The small flame did not lose hope, and just like the cherry blossom buds that are ready to bloom, it was waiting for this day,” Hashimoto said.

Authorities have decided foreign spectators won’t be allowed in stadiums, and it remains undecided how many Japanese will be allowed to attend. 

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With organisers billing the games as the “Recovery Olympics,” a nod to the disaster as well as the pandemic, Thursday’s runners included many who had fled after the meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant.

“This town is where I was born and raised, and I never thought a torch relay would be held here,” said Takumi Ito, 31, speaking in Futaba, one of the towns worst hit by the nuclear disaster. 

“We are still in the coronavirus pandemic, but I think it’s great we could hold the relay.” 

Japan has fared better than most countries, with about 9,000 coronavirus deaths, but Tokyo reported 420 cases on Wednesday, the highest single-day figure this month. Polls show the majority of the public is against holding the Olympics as scheduled. 

About 10,000 runners will take part in the four-month relay, which will go through all of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

The celebration cauldron is lit on the first day of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic torch relay in Naraha, Fukushima prefecture, Japan March 25, 2021. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon/Pool

NO CROWDS OR CHEERING

The relay, which will culminate with the Olympic opening ceremony on July 23, has been hit by several high-profile runner cancellations as celebrities and top-level athletes have pulled out, citing late notice and worries over the pandemic.

The brief, solemn opening ceremony, closed to the public, was held at J-Village in Fukushima, a sports complex converted for several years into a staging ground for workers decommissioning the crippled nuclear power plant. 

“For the torch relay viewing, please ensure you are wearing a mask, keep proper distance, don’t stand close to each other and support with things like clapping, instead of using a loud voice,” an announcer said.

Low-key events featuring Fukushima residents in drum and dance performances were followed by a children’s choir before the Olympic flame, flown in from Greece last year and kept alight under 24-hour guard, was used to ignite the torch. 

Members of the Japanese national women’s soccer team were the first group to run with the flame, wearing white uniforms decorated with red.

The number of spectators, some waving Olympic flags or carp-shaped cloth streamers, increased throughout the day, ranging from nursery school children in colourful caps to elderly people clapping in front of flowering spring trees. 

Some runners grinned and posed as they handed off the torch, waving, while others set off to the beat of traditional Japanese drums. One man pushed himself in a wheelchair, the torch mounted in a bracket.

Most spectators kept some distance from each other and there were mainly muted claps. Organisers have said the relay will skip areas that are too crowded, or pause until people disperse.

The celebration cauldron is lit on the first day of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic torch relay in Naraha, Fukushima prefecture, Japan March 25, 2021. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon/Pool

‘YOU MUST BE JOKING’

The organisers insist the Olympics will go ahead, but doctors and nurses have complained about the strain on hospitals and experts warn about the spread of virus variants.

Japan was the last of the Group of Seven industrialised nations to launch a vaccine drive. Only 700,000 people have been inoculated so far, most of them medical workers.

Japan has spent nearly $300 billion to revive the Fukushima region, but many locals are apprehensive about the Games, as some areas remain off-limits, worries about radiation linger and many who left have settled elsewhere. Decommissioning of the stricken plant will take up to a century.

“Fukushima’s recovery is going steadily,” Fukushima governor Masao Uchibori said at the launch ceremony.

“But there are still many people who can’t return to their homes, and many difficult issues such as reviving these areas and rebuilding the lives of their residents,” he said.

A protester driving a van near the relay shouted over a loudspeaker, questioning how the Olympics could contribute to the region’s recovery. 

“You must be joking,” the man yelled. “Everyone knows we can’t have the Olympics,” he shouted.

Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka and Akira Tomoshige in Fukushima and Mari Saito, Ju-min Park, Antoni Slodkowski and Elaine Lies in Tokyo; Editing by Richard Pullin and Gerry Doyle; Reuters

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