The torch for the Tokyo Olympics has started its 121-day journey across Japan, heading towards the opening ceremony in the capital on July 23.
The relay began in the north-eastern Fukushima prefecture, the area that was devastated by the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and the meltdown of three nuclear reactors.
The first runner with the torch was Azusa Iwashimizu, a key player in the Japanese football team that won the Women’s World Cup in 2011.
Wearing a white tracksuit, she carried the torch out of the J-Village indoor football training centre and was surrounded by 14 other members of the 2011 World Cup squad and coach Norio Sasaki at the rear.
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The light of hope. 🔥
Shining bright on the first day of the #OlympicTorchRelay. 🇯🇵
👉 https://t.co/CgE5Dlzk6H #HopeLightsOurWay #StrongerTogether #Tokyo2020 pic.twitter.com/WCsWMnEtVU
The ceremony was closed to the public because of the fear of spreading Covid-19 but was streamed live.
“The torch of Tokyo 2020 will become a bright light for hope for Japanese citizens and citizens in the world and a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Seiko Hashimoto, president of the local organising committee and a former Olympian.
Homare Sawa, the biggest star on the 2011 team, missed the ceremony. She is being treated for a condition affecting her inner ear and had to withdraw from the event.
Fans were told to socially distance along the roadside as the torch passes, and to refrain from loud cheering. Organisers have said they will stop or reroute the relay if crowding becomes a problem during the four-month parade.
Spectators co-operated in Naraha Town, just down the road from where the torch started its trip. A few hundred people stood on the roadside and were safely spread out.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga chimed in from Tokyo with a statement, telling reporters: “The Olympic torch relay starting from today is a valuable opportunity for the people to get a real sense of the Olympics and Paralympics that are approaching.”
The flame in the torch was blown out during one leg of the relay. As has happened in other Olympics, it was re-lit with a back-up lantern that also carries the flame that was kindled in Greece more than a year ago.
About 10,000 runners are expected to take part, with the relay touching Japan’s 47 prefectures.
The relay is a prelude to the difficulties the Olympics and Paralympics will present with 15,400 athletes entering Japan, along with thousands of other officials, judges, VIPs, media and broadcasters.
Athletes will be kept in a bubble-like atmosphere in Tokyo and will be limited to the Athletes Village on Tokyo Bay, the competition venues and training areas. Most others will be outside the bubble and will be kept at a distance from the athletes.
Organisers announced a few days ago that fans from abroad will be banned from attending the Olympics and Paralympics, and most volunteers from abroad have also been ruled out.
Japan has fared better than most countries during the pandemic, with about 9,000 coronavirus deaths, but Tokyo reported 420 cases on Wednesday, the highest single-day figure this month.
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