Olympic Games

Torch relay starts in Fukushima to launch four-month countdown to Tokyo Games

Japanese football star Azusa Iwashimizu was the first runner to hold the torch during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Torch relay start in Naraha in Fukushima prefecture, north-eastern Japan.
Japanese football star Azusa Iwashimizu was the first runner to hold the torch during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Torch relay start in Naraha in Fukushima prefecture, north-eastern Japan. AP - Kim Kyung-Hoon

The Olympic torch relay began on Thursday in Fukushima to launch the four-month countdown to the Tokyo games. It was a symbolic moment for the runners, many of whom were evacuees who fled their homes after the deadly March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

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Spectators were barred from the opening ceremony at the J-Village sports complex as part of the restrictions imposed by the Japanese government to stem the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

"For the past year, as the entire world underwent a difficult period, the Olympic flame was kept alive quietly but powerfully," said Seiko Hashimoto who heads the Tokyo 2020 organising committee.

"The small flame did not lose hope, and just like the cherry blossom buds that are ready to bloom, it was waiting for this day.

Ban

Last week, organisers announced that foreign spectators would be banned from the Games which start on 23 July. It remains unclear how many Japanese fans will be allowed in the stadiums hosting the disciplines.

Fukushima was chosen as the starting point to highlight the area’s recovery since the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami - which killed more than 18,000 people - and the resulting nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant.

About 10,000 runners will take part in the relay, which will pass through all of Japan's 47 prefectures.

Thursday's runners included many evacuees who fled their homes after the meltdowns at the installation.

Pride

In Futaba, one of the towns worst hit by the nuclear disaster, resident Takumi Ito said he was delighted to see the ceremony.

"This town is where I was born and raised, and I never thought a torch relay would be held here," said 31-year-old.

"We are still in the coronavirus pandemic but I think it's great we could hold the relay."

Japan has registered 9,000 coronavirus deaths since January 2020. But despite the relatively low figure, polls have consistently shown the majority of the public opposed to staging the Olympics.

Several high-profile celebrities and athletes have pulled out as runners. They have cited late notice and worries over the pandemic.

However members of the Japanese women's soccer team were the first to run with the flame, wearing white uniforms decorated with red.

On Thursday, the Japanese prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, said the government would cooperate with the Tokyo metropolitan authorities and the International Olympic Committee to host a secure Games. 

“We will do our utmost in terms of coronavirus measures and continue to work with related areas to contain the spread of infections and hope to work towards a safe and secure Games,” he said.

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