With waves but no cheers, Tokyo Olympics torch relay kicks off in Japan

The torch is lit by a member of Japan's women's national soccer team "Nadeshiko Japan" during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Torch Relay Grand Start in Naraha, Fukushima prefecture, northeastern Japan, Thursday, March 25, 2021. 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. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Pool Photo via AP).

With waves, smiles and high fives, but no cheers, the Olympic torch relay set 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.

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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.

Japan has fared better than most countries during the pandemic, with about 9,000 coronavirus deaths, but Tokyo reported 420 cases on Wednesday, the highest single-day figure this month.

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The majority of the public is against the Olympics being held as scheduled, polls show.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga assured reporters the national government was cooperating with Tokyo and the International Olympic Committee to host a safe and secure Games.

“We will do our utmost in terms of coronavirus measures and continue to work with related areas to contain the spread of infections,” Suga said.

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

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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.

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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.

“I’m convinced that, under this coronavirus pandemic, the Olympics will surely bring courage and vigour to people in east Japan, where recovery is still halfway through,” Norio Sasaki, coach of the women’s soccer team that won the 2011 World Cup, said after running the first leg of the relay.

The number of spectators, some waving Olympic flags or banners saying “Fight on,” increased throughout the day.

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.

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

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‘You must be joking’

Japan has spent nearly $300 billion to revive the region, but many locals are apprehensive about the Games, as areas in Fukushima remain off-limits, worries about radiation linger and many who left have settled elsewhere. Decommissioning 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.

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

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.

Adding to the challenge, 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.

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

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