— Published 25 March 2021

For the Tokyo Games, the flame of hope

It has left. Finally. The Olympic Torch Relay for the Tokyo Games kicked off early in the morning of Thursday, March 25th, from the football fields of J-Village, a national training center in the Fukushima province. The kick-off was on time. The timing was precise, the ceremony regulated like precision mechanics.

History will remember that the torch was first held by a man, Norio Sasaki, 62, the coach of the Japanese women’s football team crowned world champion in 2011, the year of the tsunami and nuclear power plant disaster in Fukushima. About fifteen players from the team of the time were among the torchbearers on this first day. But Homare Sawa, the captain of the world champions, will not be. She announced her forfeit the day before the launch, citing medical reasons.

In time, history will undoubtedly forget that the first relays were made without a single spectator. They were not allowed to watch the scene. They lacked the atmosphere, but the flame still brought a pinch of emotion. Passing from hand to hand, it showed that the impossible might finally be overcome, in just 120 days, in the Japanese capital.

Seiko Hashimoto, the chair of the organising committee, got it right. “This little flame never gave up hope and waited for this day like a cherry blossom about to bloom“, she suggested during her speech at J-Village. “She continued to burn quietly, but forcefully, as the world went through difficult times over the past year. She will embark on a 121-day journey where she will carry the hopes of the Japanese people and the wishes of people around the world for peace”.

The Olympic torch must pass through 859 municipalities, in the 47 prefectures of Japan, throughout its 121-day journey. It will pass through the hands of around 10 000 torchbearers, each trotting an average of 200 meters.

Before having the privilege of carrying the torch, relay participants will have to complete a two-week social “fast”. They are asked not to have lunch or dinner with friends. They must also keep a health record in which to indicate their condition and temperature day after day.

In recent months, the cast of the soap opera has been lightened by a few heavyweights, supposed to give it a more flashy varnish. Many Japanese celebrities, artists or athletes, have withdrawn from the show. Some spoke very diplomatically about scheduling constraints. But several of them did not hide the real reason for their defection: a desire to distance themselves from an event marked by a soaring budget and a sexist environment.

In the world before, the Olympic Torch Relay would have been celebrated as a symbolic stop on the road to the Games. The whole world would have watched his first steps with curious eyes. Then they would have moved on, before finding the flame in the streets of Tokyo, then even more when it entered the Olympic stadium.

But the health crisis and its evolution, still uncertain, give the torch’s journey a new dimension. It becomes a test. A crucial test, to be passed by all means. A test for the organising committee of its ability to manage a public event (spectators will be allowed on most of the course in compliance with health measures) in complete safety. A test, also, of the attractiveness of the Olympic and Paralympic event for a Japanese public, still largely opposed to its holding during the next summer.

Proof of the importance of the success of the Torch Relay: the management of operations is now in the hands of Toshiro Muto, the managing director of the organising committee. He took it up a notch.

Before the onset of the health crisis, the torch was to present to the rest of the planet the image of a Japan having successfully rebuilt after the Fukushima disaster. Today, the target has been significantly increased: to prove that the world can recover from the pandemic.