TOKYO — With the Olympic flame at its heart, the role of the torch relay is "to arouse joy and excitement for the Games" across the host nation. That's the message Tokyo 2020 officials put out Thursday. But, they warned, be careful how you express your joy — and definitely don't get too excited.
“We ask that spectators refrain from cheering and shouting,” Yukihiko Nunomura, a senior member of the organizing committee, said at a news conference, explaining that spectators will be expected to wear masks. “Please cheer by clapping your hands,” he added.
Spectators aren’t being discouraged from attending, organizers stressed. But crowds are, if you can work out when a group of spectators becomes a crowd.
“If by any chance, any dense gatherings happen on streets, the torch relay can be stopped as we prioritize safety and security,” Nunomura said.
The tamped-down torch relay will begin March 25 in the northeastern prefecture of Fukushima, which was hit by an earthquake and a tsunami in 2011. The flame is supposed 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 said.
The relay will be live-streamed to deter mass gatherings on streets.
“We ask people to watch the live stream to avoid overcrowding,” Nunomura said. “But if there aren’t crowds, we want people to actively join on-site and enliven the mood.”
Celebrities have been enlisted to carry the torch and help generate excitement — but again, not too much. Organizers said they had asked torchbearers not to reveal their running slots in case crowds turn up to see them.
One torchbearer, comedian Atsushi Tamura, pulled out earlier this month after the then-president of the organizing committee, Yoshiro Mori, suggested the Olympics will be held regardless of the pandemic circumstance and said celebrities should carry the torch through rice paddies to avoid spectators.
Mori has since resigned, after saying women talk too much at meetings, and about 1,000 volunteers, or 1 percent of the total, have withdrawn in protest of his comments and concerns over the pandemic. Mori’s successor, Seiko Hashimoto, said Thursday she hoped to have more clarity on whether and how to accommodate spectators for the Games by the time the torch relay starts next month.
Being a torchbearer won’t be as much fun as in other Games. During the two weeks before running, torchbearers are being asked to refrain from anything that might expose them to the virus, such as eating out or going to crowded places.
They won’t be given a coronavirus test unless they feel sick, but they will be asked to complete a daily health checklist and wear masks when not running. On their relay day, they will also be asked “to refrain from talking loudly on buses and at reception desks.”
There had been talk of truncating the torch relay given the risks, but organizers decided to plow on with the event, which is sponsored by companies such as Coca-Cola and Toyota.
Local sponsors have poured about $3.5 billion into these Olympics, according to the Associated Press. The official price tag has risen to $15.4 billion after the Games were postponed last year, but estimates by government auditors suggest it could exceed $25 billion.
Hopes that Japan will have vaccinated a large proportion of its population in time for the Games have faded in recent weeks, and the minister in charge of the coronavirus vaccine rollout, Taro Kono, said Wednesday the Games are “not on my schedule at all.”
Japan has approved only the coronavirus vaccine developed by U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and German biotech firm BioNTech, but supplies have been slow to arrive from Europe. Vaccinations started last week and have covered fewer than 18,000 medical workers.
Athletes coming to the Games are being encouraged to get vaccinated but shots will not be mandatory, International Olympic Committee Vice President John Coates said Thursday.
“Not compulsory; we can’t do that,” Coates told reporters in Brisbane, Australia, according to Reuters.
“But it is certainly being encouraged, and the IOC has an agreement with Covax where it’s helping to facilitate the distribution of vaccines.”
Covax is the World Health Organization’s global vaccine-sharing program.
Julia Mio Inuma contributed to this report.