TOKYO — 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.
Local organizers and the International Olympic Committee hope the relay will turn public opinion in Japan in favour of the Olympics. Sentiments expressed in polls in Japan so far are overwhelmingly negative with about 80% suggesting another delay or cancellation.
The relay and the Olympics both stir fear that the events could spread the virus. There is also opposition to the soaring 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.