Tokyo Olympic torch relay tasked with uniting disaster-hit regions

Kyodo, Staff Report

With the 2020 Tokyo Games dubbed the Olympics to help reconstruct disaster-hit regions, torch relay organizers are tasked with providing a genuine sense of involvement for people still finding their way back to normality.

Starting discussions in February, organizers decided the best way to achieve this was taking the relay through recent disaster-hit areas first, while also ensuring it passes through all 47 prefectures.

One of the cities in the running to host the start of the relay is Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture, where more than 3,000 lives were lost in the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami and 400 people are still unaccounted for.

The city borrowed the 1964 Tokyo Olympics cauldron and hopes to send out the first runner to symbolize its recovery.

Other affected municipalities are also looking at various ways to become involved.

Kumamoto Prefecture was hit by two big quakes last April, while Itoigawa in Niigata Prefecture was devastated by a huge fire in December that destroyed almost 150 homes.

Nippon Koki Co., which made some 7,000 torches for the 1964 relay, had production at its plant in Saigo, Fukushima Prefecture, halted for two months after the March 2011 disaster.

The company, whose torches were also used for the 1972 Sapporo Winter Games and the 1982 Sarajevo Games, developed torches for 1964 that would not go out in water or due to a lack of oxygen.

It is bidding to be the supplier again with a smokeless torch that will ensure spectators can see the flame.

“Just as the Tokyo Olympic flame transmitted the message of postwar recovery last time, we’d like to fulfill the duty of conveying the message of recovery from stricken areas to the world,” the plant’s chief, Masayuki Sato, said.

Young torch bearers covered 12 kph ahead of the 1964 Games, but 2020 organizers said recent relays, using runners of various ages, have only traveled at half that pace.

In addition, the last two Olympics showed the relay’s increasingly inclusive nature.

The 2012 London Games’ 70-day relay was mapped out so 95 percent of the population would live within a one-hour trip of the course.

Rio’s course was designed to enable 90 percent of Brazil’s 210 million residents to watch from the roadside over its 95 days.

Whatever route Japan decides, organizers will need the green light from the International Olympic Committee a year before the 2020 sporting extravaganza.

Ahead of the 1964 Games, the flame lit in Olympia, Greece, traveled through more than 10 countries before landing in Okinawa — then under the jurisdiction of the United States. The flame was divided and sent to the cities of Kagoshima and Miyazaki in nearby Kyushu as well as to Chitose in Hokkaido.

With two routes leading from Chitose, the fire traveled on four paths — two from the north and two from the south.

Three routes were used for the 1998 Nagano Winter Games.

But the IOC is now demanding a single course that will be covered within 100 days.

The 2020 Games organizing chief, Yoshiro Mori, has asked the IOC to prolong the 100-day cap, with the request said to have been met favorably.

A sticking point, however, is the idea of multiple routes as the international body is eager to simplify the pre-games ritual to avoid a repeat of the issues that marred recent torch relays.

Clashes over Tibetan independence in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Games saw the IOC limit the relay to the host nation, but that didn’t stop disruptions in Brazil, where political and economic turmoil saw numerous protests greet the torch relay, requiring intervention from the police.

The relay across Brazil involved about 12,000 torchbearers, but was plagued with embarrassing setbacks and ugly scenes of police using stun grenades and tear gas on protestors blocking the relay path.

The country’s embattled President Dilma Rousseff was the target of much of the unrest, and would be suspended from office before the Olympics even opened — and eventually impeached.

But should the 2020 Games organizers realize their plan for the symbolic relay, it is hoped people in disaster-hit towns and cities will be helped by the sight of the flame as well as the sight of those eagerly waiting to do their part in marking the special occasion.

The modern torch relay was created by Nazi Germany to boost its prestige ahead of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The messengers’ role has ostensibly been to “carry a message of peace on their journey.”

Unfortunately, that message did nothing to stop the impending war that prevented the Olympics from being held again until 1948.

Yet despite its inauspicious origins, the torch relay has become a core part of Olympic pageantry and symbolism.

Yoshinori Sakai, who was born in Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, a few hours after the atomic bomb was dropped on the city, was the final runner to light the cauldron at the old National Stadium in 1964.

Rather than serving as a beacon of peace, it has been suggested the 2020 flame’s symbol might be “peace of mind” for those still facing dire predicaments.

Torch relay panel member Mariko Hayashi said the planning and execution of the torch relay in 2020 had to be handled with care.

“We tend to think running through the affected region will make people happy, but we also have to remember that there are people who might be unsettled,” she said.

“Seeing children running where many kids died could make some people happy but could stir up painful memories for others. We have to bear that in mind.”

Hayashi added that organizers needed to properly consult with local communities.

“I’m sure there are some places they don’t want included in the route,” she said. “We want to make it something that will make everyone happy.”