The torch relay for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games is slated to kick off in Fukushima Prefecture on Thursday, with organizers keen to make sure that social distancing measures for the coronavirus are enforced.

But with Tokyo and neighboring prefectures still seeing a relatively high number of daily new cases compared to other regions, officials are worried that there will be rising criticism against the sporting extravaganza if infections spread among torch relay runners, spectators or staff members.

Torch relays are normally conducted to increase public excitement for the Olympics. But the pandemic is forcing organizers to limit crowds and they are asking only those who live in the prefecture where the relay is taking place to clap — not cheer — as runners go by. The Tokyo Organising Committee will stream the relay live and is urging people to watch it online.

In order to avoid crowds, 600 TV celebrities and former athletes are scheduled to run at parks and schools instead of public roads, and their route will not be announced until 30 minutes before they start. The torch relay may be canceled if crowds still form despite those measures.

Runners are not required to wear a mask, but when they hand the torch to the next runner, they will be side by side with both looking forward, as opposed to facing each other, in order to avoid the risk of airborne infection. The organizing committee will restrict the number of spectators allowed at the venues where the day's relay ends, with reservations necessary beforehand.

In prefectures where a state of emergency or stay-at-home requests are in place, the organizing committee plans to just hold a torch lighting ceremony and cancel the relay. Such decisions will be made a month prior to the start of the relay based on the infections in each prefecture.

Two weeks prior to the relay, runners are asked to refrain from dining out with others and document their health conditions. If a state of emergency is declared in a prefecture where the relay will take place, it is recommended that he or she be tested within 72 hours before their start, at the expense of the organizer.

People protest against the torch relay and the Olympic Games on Wednesday near J-Village where the relay is due to kick off in Fukushima Prefecture. | KYODO
People protest against the torch relay and the Olympic Games on Wednesday near J-Village where the relay is due to kick off in Fukushima Prefecture. | KYODO

Organizing committee officials dispatched to the prefectures will also be tested beforehand, and their health condition will be monitored using a smartphone app.

"Ensuring safety is the top priority. I want to ask people for their cooperation in order to avoid excessive crowds," said an official of the Tokyo Organising Committee.

The torch relay will begin at J-Village, a reconstructed soccer stadium in Fukushima Prefecture that served as a headquarters for response to the 2011 nuclear disaster.

The fire taken from a torch in Greece on March 12, 2020, has remained in Japan over the past year.

Throughout much of Olympic history, the torch relay has been a symbol of the hopes and prayers of many.

The torch relay that started in Greece for the 1948 London Games — the first after the end of World War II — began with a touching scene. In a symbolic gesture of peace, a soldier dropped his weapon, took off his military uniform, and started running in sportswear with a torch in his hand.

At the time, the runners were cheered with much enthusiasm as they ran through a devastated Europe.

The torch to be used for the relay bears a cherry blossom design. | KYODO
The torch to be used for the relay bears a cherry blossom design. | KYODO

The very first torch relay was held ahead of the 1936 Berlin Games. As a result, there were voices of criticism toward continuing the torch relay, which initially started as a form of Nazi propaganda.

Nevertheless, the London organizers and the International Olympic Committee decided to continue on. The event was reborn as the "Relay of Peace," which later became an indispensable tradition of the Olympic Games.

For the relay beginning Thursday, there are twin messages pertaining to rebirth: The reconstruction of affected areas from the 2011 earthquakes and tsunami, as well as that of the world rising from the global health crisis. But with the pandemic yet to subside at home and abroad, skepticism over the Olympics remains.

Despite the challenges ahead, Seiko Hashimoto, president of the Tokyo Organising Committee, believes the torch relay will provide hope for society.

"I want to realize a relay that carries hope across Japan. Bringing the torch to the National Stadium by the hands of people will be an asset to the next generation," said Hashimoto.

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