YOKOSUKA, KANAGAWA PREF. – Even though it was 56 years ago, Kazuo Goto still vividly remembers his pride as he carried the Olympic flame on the last day of the torch relay when Tokyo hosted the Games in 1964.
But with the coronavirus threatening the Olympic Games themselves, the 73-year-old believes the 2020 version should be scrapped, as torchbearers need to be able to carry the flame with a “clear conscience.”
The nationwide torch relay was due to begin Thursday, starting from the J-Village sports complex in Fukushima that was used as a base for workers during the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. But the coronavirus has already played havoc with the relay, forcing organizers to scale back celebrations and warn fans not to congregate in crowds along the route.
In line with what Goto predicted, the organizers are now set to halt the torch relay and instead use a lantern to carry the Olympic flame via car to celebration events around the country.
“We are not in a position where we can go ahead with the torch relay as planned,” Goto, a former insurance broker, said in an interview at his house in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture.
The white-haired former torchbearer recalled that he was “thrilled” to be part of the 1964 Olympic movement, which symbolized Japan’s rise from the ashes of World War II to an economic and technological powerhouse.
“I ran with my head high and chest out under the sunshine, representing my country. That’s the significance,” Goto said, cradling the torch he carried in 1964.
“It’s best for torchbearers to run with a crystal-clear conscience.”
One prominent torchbearer, U.S.-based Japanese soccer star Nahomi Kawasumi, has already pulled out of the relay, saying she did not want to risk infecting anyone given the number of cases is much higher in the U.S. than in Japan.
In what organizers described as a “heartbreaking” decision, they kept away some 200 children from welcoming the torch off the plane from Greece.
Goto said he feels sorry for the 10,000 bearers of the 2020 flame, whose big moment may be dampened by sparse crowds and who may run with mixed feelings.
“They are supposed to run with well-wishers. The torch relay is an integral part of the Olympics,” he said.
The theme of the torch relay was “hope lights our way,” and former Olympic judo champion Saori Yoshida, who lit a ceremonial cauldron with the flame when it arrived from Greece, said she wanted it to brighten people’s lives in the current dark times.
Isamu Miyagi, who was the first torchbearer at the 1964 Olympics and plans to run again this year, said he still believes “it’s worth running” with the flame.
“I’m worried but it is beyond our control as to whether we can go ahead with the relay,” said Miyagi, scheduled to run on May 3 in Okinawa Prefecture.
“I still hope it happens because the Olympic flame is the flame to light up the spirits of people fighting hardship,” the 77-year-old said in a phone interview.
“That’s why we need to do the flame relay now,” he said.
“I will keep preparing to carry the flame no matter what.”