The Olympic torch is once again on the move.
One year after the Olympic torch relay was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the flame began its tour of Japan on Thursday. The relay began in the Fukushima prefecture, the site of the the 2011 nuclear reactor meltdown caused by an earthquake and tsunami that killed thousands.
The first runner to carry the torch was Azusa Iwashimizu, a defender on the Japanese team that won the 2011 Women’s World Cup. She received the ceremony alongside her teammates in a muted ceremony not open to the public:
The ceremony was the beginning of what will be a four-month tour around Japan, culminating with its arrival at Tokyo's Japan National Stadium during the Opening Ceremony in July. Over 10,000 torchbearers out of a half-million applicants will take part, authorities say.
The torch relay began on March 12, 2020, when Olympic organizers went ahead with the ceremony in Greece despite widespread closures around the world and increased scrutiny over holding the 2020 Olympics as scheduled. The relay lasted all of one day in Greece before being suspended, with the torch later flown to Japan. When the 2020 Olympics were officially put on ice, the torch was move to Tokyo, where it remained until this month.
Now, the torch will make its tour one year late, and in a significantly different environment than expected. Concerns about holding the Games in Tokyo this year still remain, as a public opinion poll found that 80 percent of Japan favors canceling or again delaying the Olympics, per the Associated Press.
There was reportedly talk of canceling the relay after its postponement, but sponsorships from Coca-Cola and Toyota reportedly saved it.
Fans are reportedly expected to social distance and refrain from loud cheers when watching the torch relay, with organizers warning the torch will be stopped or rerouted if crowding becomes a problem. While Japan has seen far fewer COVID-19 cases and deaths than the U.S., vaccine rollout has been slow.
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