'No silver bullet': torch relay struggles highlight hurdles for pandemic Olympics

Elaine Lies and Kiyoshi Takenaka
·3 min read
The Olympic torch of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games is displayed in Tokyo

By Elaine Lies and Kiyoshi Takenaka

TOKYO (Reuters) - Gold medal Paralympian Rina Akiyama pulled out of the Olympic torch relay at the eleventh hour this month, worried about drawing crowds that might spread the coronavirus, the latest in a series of cancellations that have plagued the event.

The withdrawal by Akiyama and more than a dozen celebrities from the relay, which starts Thursday, underscores the challenges facing organisers of one of the world's most complex events, hosted by a nation where vaccinations have barely begun, in the midst of a yet-untamed pandemic.

"I'm a former athlete and know how important the Olympics and Paralympics are, but life should be prioritised above everything else," said Akiyama, 33, and a swimmer who won gold in London in 2012.

"I'm no medical expert, but it doesn't look to me like the situation will end in just three or four months," Akiyama added. "We have no silver-bullet medicine or enough vaccine to go around in Japan."

The combination of the pandemic and an unprecedented postponement of the Games has forced local organisers to scramble to pull things together. Three infection surges and lockdowns have slowed final arrangements, prompting media reports of busy singers and actors complaining about late notifications.

Hiromi Kawamura, who oversees the relay at the Tokyo 2020 organisers, apologised for delays, but said they were juggling vast amounts of fast-changing information, a shifting pandemic situation and negotiations with national and local governments.

"We had to make a comprehensive plan as the first wave, the second wave, the third wave came," she told Reuters. "That took a lot of time, we can't deny it, and I do believe that it made people in the local areas concerned."

The relay will run for four months, taking the torch across all of Japan's 47 prefectures, including far-flung islands, and will involve about 10,000 runners.

COME WHAT MAY

The government pledged to carry out the Games come what may, but officials on the ground said there were lingering fears it could be cancelled anyway. The Games were postponed last year two days before the torch relay began.

"We knew everything would depend on the infection risk, so cancellation again was a possibility," said Kosei Shoji, an official in Fukushima, where the relay begins.

The starting ceremony and the first section of the relay will not be open to fans. Elsewhere, spectators need to wear masks, socially distance, and the relay could be halted if the course area becomes too crowded.

The governor of the western prefecture of Shimane has threatened to cancel the relay altogether, saying he would decide only a month before the event arrives there on May 15.

"The sense is it will probably be called off, but we're preparing," said a Shimane official, declining to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. "If it comes off, we'll only have a month to do it, so that probably means working through the night a lot of times. And we'll have to pull in people from other offices to help."

Tokyo 2020's Kawamura acknowledged that it was hard to balance the celebrations usually accompanying a torch relay with the tough circumstances of the pandemic.

"I think there is a feeling about whether it's all right to be having fun, when there are people who are suffering," she said.

"On the other hand, this isn't the kind of fun you have riding a rollercoaster. It's having people who have contributed to the local areas as torch runners," she added.

Kawamura pledged to "do it safely, and the fun will be appropriate to having it take place during the coronavirus."

(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka and Elaine Lies. Editing by Gerry Doyle)