Paralympic gold medalist Rina Akiyama pulled out of the Tokyo Olympic torch relay at the eleventh hour this month, worried about drawing crowds that might spread the coronavirus, the latest in a series of cancellations that have plagued the event.
The withdrawal by Akiyama and more than a dozen celebrities from the relay, which starts Thursday, underscores the challenges facing organizers of one of the world’s most complex events, which is being hosted by a nation where COVID-19 vaccinations have barely begun and in the midst of a yet-untamed pandemic.
“I’m a former athlete and know how important the Olympics and Paralympics are, but life should be prioritized above everything else,” said the 33-year-old Akiyama, a swimmer who won gold in London in 2012.
“I’m no medical expert, but it doesn’t look to me like the situation will end in just three or four months,” Akiyama added. “We have no silver-bullet medicine or enough vaccine to go around in Japan.”
The combination of the pandemic and an unprecedented postponement of the games has forced local organizers to scramble to pull things together. Three infection surges and lockdowns have slowed the final arrangements, prompting media reports of busy singers and actors complaining about late notifications.
Hiromi Kawamura, who is overseeing the relay for Tokyo 2020 organizers, apologized for the delays, but said they were juggling vast amounts of fast-changing information, a shifting pandemic situation and negotiations with national and local governments.
“We had to make a comprehensive plan as the first wave, the second wave, the third wave came,” she told Reuters. “That took a lot of time, we can’t deny it, and I do believe that it made people in the local areas concerned.”
The relay will run for four months, taking the torch across all of Japan’s 47 prefectures, including far-flung islands, and will involve about 10,000 runners.
The government pledged to carry out the games come what may, but officials on the ground said there were lingering fears they be canceled anyway. The games were postponed last year two days before the torch relay began.
“We knew everything would depend on the infection risk, so cancellation again was a possibility,” said Kosei Shoji, an official in Fukushima Prefecture, where the relay begins.
The starting ceremony and the first section of the relay will not be open to fans. Elsewhere, spectators need to wear masks and socially distance, while the relay could be halted if the course area becomes too crowded.
The governor of the western prefecture of Shimane has threatened to cancel the relay altogether, saying he would decide only a month before the event arrives there on May 15.
“The sense is it will probably be called off, but we’re preparing,” said a Shimane official who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. “If it comes off, we’ll only have a month to do it, so that probably means working through the night a lot of times. And we’ll have to pull in people from other offices to help.”
Kawamura acknowledged that it was hard to balance the celebrations usually accompanying a torch relay with the tough circumstances of the pandemic.
“I think there is a feeling about whether it’s all right to be having fun, when there are people who are suffering,” she said.
“On the other hand, this isn’t the kind of fun you have riding a rollercoaster. It’s having people who have contributed to the local areas as torch runners,” she added.
Kawamura pledged to “do it safely, and the fun will be appropriate to having it take place during the coronavirus.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.