HIGASHIMATSUSHIMA, MIYAGI PREF. – The flame for this summer’s Tokyo Olympics arrived in Japan on Friday, beginning the domestic buildup to the games even as doubts persist over what impact the COVID-19 pandemic may have on the country’s hosting of the sporting showpiece.
The Japanese leg of the torch relay, with the concept of “Hope Lights Our Way,” will begin next week and take the flame, received from Greece, all over the country, though restrictions have been imposed on the turnout of spectators due to concern over the spread of the virus.
Olympic organizers had to significantly downsize the ceremony to welcome the flame at the Air Self-Defense Force’s Matsushima base in Miyagi Prefecture, one of several devastated by a massive earthquake and tsunami nine years ago.
“With safety first, we made a painful decision,” Tokyo organizing committee President Yoshiro Mori said, adding that by following advice from the World Health Organization, “we will make every effort to prepare for a safe and secure games.”
The event, held in blustery conditions, was attended by a limited number of people, including Olympic minister Seiko Hashimoto and a pair of three-time gold medalists — judoka Tadahiro Nomura and freestyle wrestler Saori Yoshida.
They were to have been part of a high-level delegation sent to receive the flame in Athens a day earlier, but the plan was aborted due to the spread of the virus across Europe.
“It is finally starting. Now is a time with many difficulties, but I hope this torch relay will be able to deliver cheer and hope to everyone,” said Yoshida, who along with Nomura received the flame in a lantern and lit an Olympic cauldron on the tarmac of the air base.
Many festivities for the games have been affected by virus precautions since an event to ignite the flame was held on March 12 in Greece as scheduled, though without the presence of spectators.
Around 200 children who were due to welcome the flame to Japan were kept away as part of measures designed to halt the spread of the virus, which has infected over 900 people in the country.
The relay, with the torch decorated in a cherry blossom motif, will kick off Thursday in Fukushima Prefecture at the J-Village soccer training center, which served as a frontline base of operations to battle the nuclear disaster that followed the 2011 earthquake.
Members of the Nadeshiko Japan soccer team, which won the Women’s World Cup in 2011, will be the first runners.
“The Olympic flame relay is the biggest event ahead of the Olympics. It is very important for us to carry it out at any cost,” said Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto. “It is an opportunity for people outside Tokyo to feel a sense of affinity for the Olympics.”
While admitting the current difficult situation stemming from the spread of the virus, the International Olympic Committee and Japanese officials have insisted the games will begin as planned on July 24.
Nonetheless, more have raised their voices in recent days about postponing the opening of the Olympics, which is set to be followed by the Paralympics on Aug. 25, given the series of suspensions of qualifiers and concern about the health risk to athletes.
A recent Kyodo News survey found 69.9 percent of people in Japan do not expect the games to be held as scheduled given the spread of the pneumonia-causing virus.
Since the outbreak began in China late last year, more than 244,500 people have been infected and over 10,000 killed worldwide.
After the flame’s arrival Friday aboard a chartered plane named “Tokyo 2020 Go,” the air force’s Blue Impulse aerobatics team traced the five Olympic rings in the sky with colored smoke. But the rings were not clearly visible and were immediately erased by strong winds.
Following the arrival ceremony, what the Tokyo organizing committee calls the “Flame of Recovery” will be put on public display in the prefectures of Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima — those most affected by the March 2011 quake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster — for two days each before the start of the 121-day torch relay.
While spectators are allowed to watch the relay from the roadside, fans have been urged to “avoid forming crowds,” with organizers warning there could be a change in the program in the event of “excessive congestion.”
Daily arrival and departure ceremonies are closed to the public and all torchbearers will have their temperatures taken before participating in the relay, which is scheduled to visit every part of Japan before arriving in Tokyo in mid-July.
The virus has already wreaked havoc with the traditional early stages of the torch relay in Greece — the lighting ceremony in ancient Olympia took place without spectators and was watched by a severely reduced delegation from Tokyo.
Organizers were then forced to scrap the Greek leg of the relay after large crowds mobbed Hollywood actor Gerard Butler as he lit a cauldron in the city of Sparta.
With borders shut in Europe — which has become the recent focus of the crisis — Tokyo officials did not travel to collect the torch, with former Olympic swimmer Naoko Imoto representing Japan at the official handover.
As the flame arrives, there are clouds gathering over the games, with some athletes past and present attacking the IOC for insisting there is no need for “drastic” action such as postponement or cancellation.
“This crisis is bigger than even the Olympics,” fumed Hayley Wickenheiser, a Canadian IOC member and four-time gold medalist in ice hockey.
“I think the IOC insisting this will move ahead, with such conviction, is insensitive and irresponsible given the state of humanity,” she added.
As well as wiping out the global sporting calendar, the virus has also affected many athletes’ training schedules, leading some to propose a postponement.
The IOC, which will make any decision over the fate of the games, has encouraged all athletes to train for the games “as best they can,” stressing it is “fully committed” to holding the event as planned.
Nevertheless, IOC President Thomas Bach has admitted that qualifying is becoming a problem as competitions are scrapped.
“No solution will be ideal in this situation,” an IOC spokesman acknowledged in comments Wednesday.