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A quiet Olympic torch relay kicks off from a once-devastated Japanese region

Members of Japan's women's national soccer team lead the torch relay in Naraha, Fukushima Prefecture on March 25, 2021. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/AFP/Getty Images)

TOKYO — Japan officially launched the Olympic torch relay Thursday, four months before the Tokyo Summer Games are due to begin, in a ceremony at which spectators were banned and participants distanced from one another.

The Games were postponed last year because of the coronavirus pandemic, and the slow rollout of vaccinations here has dashed hopes of a relatively normal event this year.

On Saturday, Japan announced it would ban all spectators from overseas from attending as part of efforts to ensure the Games are “safe and secure” for participants and the public.

“For the past year, as the entire world underwent a difficult period, the Olympic flame was kept alive quietly but powerfully,” Tokyo 2020 president Seiko Hashimoto said at the ceremony. “The small flame never lost hope and it waited for this day like a cherry blossom bud just about to bloom.”

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The site picked for the start of the relay was heavy with symbolism. The 121-day journey began at the national soccer training center in the northeastern prefecture of Fukushima with the winning team from the 2011 Women’s World Cup as the first torchbearers.

In 2011, Fukushima was hit by an earthquake, a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown, and the training facilities served as a base for cleanup efforts. They were only reopened for sports in 2019, and the venue is meant to symbolize the region’s recovery from the triple disaster.

Rina Sakuraba, from the village of Futaba in the prefecture, was just 15 when the earthquake hit as she was returning home from her middle school graduation. Now she is a torchbearer.

“I hope that by people like myself and others becoming torchbearers, we can tell the world that Futaba-machi is slowly recovering and bring awareness to people in Japan and worldwide that there are those who are still struggling but are working hard for a real recovery,” she said. “I hope that the Olympics will be a catalyst for the recovery here to really move forward.”

The flame is then due to travel through all of Japan’s 47 prefectures before arriving in Tokyo for the July 23 Opening Ceremonies. But the route may be modified based on the pandemic situation, organizers have said.

The relay is being live-streamed to deter mass gatherings on streets, and spectators have been asked to avoid crowds, wear masks and refrain from cheering or shouting. Clapping is allowed.

Celebrities and former athletes enlisted to carry the torch are now being asked to run in parks rather than on public roads, and they are told not to reveal in advance when and where they are running, to avoid crowds forming. So far, more than 20 celebrities and former athletes have pulled out.

The International Olympic Committee is strongly encouraging athletes, coaches and officials to get vaccinated before coming to Japan, and has accepted an offer from China to supply vaccines to any Olympic delegations in need of doses. For each vaccine supplied to a participant, the IOC will pay for two more doses for ordinary people in that country.

The organizing committee says it will release guidelines by the end of April on how many domestic spectators to allow for each event. Through most of the pandemic, Japan has allowed limited numbers of fans to attend sporting events, as long as they wear masks and don’t cheer, shout or sing.

So far, just 741,180 doses of the Pfizer vaccine have been given to medical workers and elderly people in Japan.

The government says it hopes to secure 100 million doses by the summertime, enough to cover roughly 5 million health workers and 38 million people over the age of 65 but still leaving most of the country’s 126 million unprotected.

Public opinion polls show most people in Japan want the Games to be canceled or postponed, but the Tokyo Games organizing committee and the IOC say a second postponement is not an option.

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