The Olympic torch relay began in the tsunami-hit city of Fukushima today, kicking off a four-month countdown until the delayed summer Games in Tokyo.
Tokyo’s Olympic games, delayed from 2020 due to Covid-19, are the first ever organised during a global pandemic.
About 10,000 runners will carry the torch across Japan‘s 47 prefectures, including far-flung islands, starting from the site of the 2011 quake and tsunami that killed about 20,000 people, highlighting the government’s ‘Reconstruction Olympics‘ theme.
The first section will not have spectators, to prevent large crowds, and roadside onlookers elsewhere must wear masks and socially distance as Japan battles the deadly virus and scrambles to vaccinate its people.
Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto looks on as actor Satomi Hishihara and Paralympian Aki Taguchi light the celebration cauldron on the first day of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic torch relay in Naraha, Fukushima prefecture, Japan, March 25, 2021
‘For the past year, as the entire world underwent a difficult period, the Olympic flame was kept alive quietly but powerfully,’ said Tokyo 2020 president Seiko Hashimoto at the opening ceremony.
‘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,’ Hashimoto said.
Casting a pall over the celebrations, North Korea on Thursday launched at least two projectiles suspected to be ballistic missiles, the first such test reported since U.S. President Joe Biden took office in January.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga assured reporters in Tokyo the government was cooperating with the Tokyo metropolitan government and the International Olympic Committee to host a secure Games.
The torch is prepared to be lit during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Torch Relay Grand Start in Naraha, Fukushima prefecture, Japan
Japan’s women’s national soccer team look joyful as they lead the torch relay in Naraha
A torchbearer poses with Naraha town mascot Yuzutaro after running his leg of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic torch relay
Tokyo’s governor Yuriko Koike (left) and Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto (right) wear face masks
Japanese torchbearer Azusa Iwashimizu, a member of the Japan women’s national football team, carries a torch during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Torch Relay
Azusa Iwashimizu and other members of the Japan women’s national football team run as torchbearers in the first leg of the torch relay
A torchbearer waves to spectators along the route of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic torch relay
Supporters are seen wearing masks as they try to get a glimpse of the members of Nadeshiko Japan
Japanese torchbearers pose during the first day of Tokyo 2020 Olympic torch relay at a torch kiss point in Naraha town, Fukushima
‘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,’ Suga said.
The starting ceremony started at J-Village in Fukushima, a sports complex converted into a staging ground for workers decommissioning the crippled nuclear power plant that caused tens of thousands to flee.
Members of the Japanese national women’s soccer team will use the Olympic flame, flown in from Greece last year, to light the torch.
Members of Shinehago Equestrian Association perform during an opening performance on the first day of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic torch relay
Members of the Spa Resort Hawaiians Dancing Team ‘Hula Girls’ perform during an opening performance on the first day of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic torch relay
Members of Shinehago Equestrian Association perform by playing shells during an opening performance
Japanese comedy duo Sandwich Man enter with the Olympic flame on the first day of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic torch relay in Naraha, Fukushima prefecture, Japan, 25 March 2021
Attendees wearing face masks to help curb the spread of the coronavirus during the Grand Start of the Olympic Torch Relay today
The relay, which will culminate with the Olympic opening ceremony on July 23, has been hit by several high-profile runner cancellations as celebrities and top-level athletes have pulled out, citing late notice and worries over the pandemic.
The opening ceremony – originally planned for thousands of fans as a celebration of Japan’s recovery – is closed to the public. It featured a drum concert and dance performances by a group of residents from Fukushima, followed by a children’s choir.
Japan has fared better than most countries during the pandemic, with fewer than 9,000 coronavirus deaths. But a third wave of infections has pushed the numbers to record highs, triggering a state of emergency in Tokyo and other areas that was lifted this week.
Azusa Iwashimizu (centre) and other members of Japan women’s national football team Nadeshiko Japan, run as torchbearers
Torchbearers, accompanied by a convoy, pass spectators during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic torch relay on the first day of the relay in Naraha, Fukushima prefecture, Japan, March 25
People wearing face masks wait along the route of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic torch relay
Japan has fared better than most countries during the pandemic, with fewer than 9,000 coronavirus deaths. Pictured: People line up to see the relay
Many locals are apprehensive about the Games, as areas around the plant remain off-limits. Pictured: Children wearing face masks wait along the route of Tokyo 2020 Olympic torch relay
Children wearing face masks hold fans as they wait along the route of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic torch relay
The majority of the public are against the Olympics being held as scheduled, polls show, and Japan is the slowest among advanced economies with its vaccination roll out.
At Fukushima, J-Village is decorated with local flowers arranged using Japan’s traditional ikebana techniques. Japan has spent nearly $300 billion to revive the disaster-hit region.
But many locals are apprehensive about the Games, as areas around the plant remain off-limits, worries about radiation linger and many who left have settled elsewhere. Decommissioning will take up to a century and cost billions of dollars.