Fifteen members of the Nadeshiko Japan soccer team that won the 2011 Women’s World Cup will lead off the Tokyo Olympic Games torch relay on Thursday, but the side’s biggest star will not take part due to health concerns.

Homare Sawa, the most valuable player and top goal scorer of the World Cup in Germany, is dealing with a long-term condition affecting her inner ear and will not run in the relay, former Nadeshiko Japan head coach Norio Sasaki said Wednesday.

Speaking at a press conference before the start of the 121-day relay, Sasaki said he and the Nadeshiko Japan players would be thinking of their inspirational captain when they set out from the J-Village soccer training center in Fukushima Prefecture.

“We would like to ensure her passion is carried by the entire team as we kick off the torch relay,” Sasaki said.

The J-Village was chosen as the starting point for the relay due to its role as a frontline base in dealing with the nuclear crisis triggered by the catastrophic March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan’s Tohoku region.

But the center also holds special significance for members of the Nadeshiko Japan team, who lifted spirits in Japan by winning the World Cup just months after the disaster, Sasaki said.

“We were very much supported by the community (in Fukushima Prefecture),” he said. “When we went to visit J-Village after the earthquake, it was in a very disastrous situation, (but) we have been able to see its reconstruction.”

Sawa’s withdrawal comes after a number of Nadeshiko Japan players based overseas, including Olympique Lyon star Saki Kumagai, also pulled out of the relay due to travel restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus.

“It is truly a disappointment … but I wish to continue doing my best to prepare myself for the Olympics,” Kumagai, who is expected to be a key member of Asako Takakura’s Olympic squad, said in a video message.

Tokyo Games organizing committee chief Seiko Hashimoto said the World Cup winners were integral to selecting “the power of sports” as the theme for hosting the Olympics and Paralympics.

“With their victory, they delivered energy to citizens in Japan, including the people in the Tohoku region,” Hashimoto said.

“The great victory of Nadeshiko Japan inspired Japanese athletes to achieve exceptional results in the following years, such as at the London Olympics and Paralympics.”

The opening ceremony for the relay will be held without spectators, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, before the torch travels through all 47 prefectures of Japan.

Organizing bodies of the Tokyo Games formally agreed Saturday that the Olympics and Paralympics, already postponed by a year because of the coronavirus pandemic, will be held without overseas spectators due to public concerns over safety.

Tokyo Games organizing committee CEO Toshiro Muto acknowledged the concerns at Wednesday’s press conference, but said necessary safety measures would be put in place.

“We are fully aware there are people with anxieties about the Tokyo 2020 Games,” Muto said. “(But) we believe we can deliver a safe and secure games with the understanding of participants, as well as citizens.”

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