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Celebrities decline to run in Tokyo Olympics torch relay over lengthy uncertainty

This photo shows members of the male idol group TOKIO, who withdrew from the torch relay, in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on March 30, 2019. (Mainichi/Naotsune Umemura)

TOKYO -- Japanese celebrities are withdrawing from the Tokyo Olympic Games torch relay one after another ahead of its scheduled start on March 25, partially because of the extended uncertainty of the relay and the games due to the coronavirus pandemic.

    A representative of actor Toru Watanabe, who had initially agreed to participate in the torch relay in Ibaraki Prefecture, where he is from, said: "He is sorry as he cherishes his home prefecture, but his theater performance schedule is not something affecting only him."

    Watanabe's agency revealed that the actor's withdrawal from the torch relay was a difficult decision. Looking at the new relay dates following the games' postponement by a year, the agency tried to adjust Watanabe's schedule until the last minute, but it said in January that Watanabe will not participate due to theater work.

    A number of celebrities were booked for the torch relay, which takes place in an attempt to build momentum for the games. But the situation began to take a dark turn in late February, about a month before the relay was scheduled to start after then Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games President Yoshiro Mori was forced to step down over his sexist remarks.

    The Fukui Prefecture executive committee announced on Feb. 25 that singer Hiroshi Itsuki, who is from the prefecture, had also withdrawn from the relay due to scheduling reasons. On the following day, it became apparent that actress Takako Tokiwa, who had agreed to serve as a torch bearer in Ishikawa Prefecture, had expressed that she would not participate. Other celebrities including actor Takumi Saitoh and male idol group TOKIO followed suit.

    A series of comments, such as "Sexist remarks led to this situation" and "It's understandable to withdraw because they can't forgive Mr. Mori's remarks," were posted on social media. But according to the organizing committee, comedian Atsushi Tamura is the only famous person who pulled out of the relay because of Mori's comments.

    This photo shows actress Takako Tokiwa, who was supposed to be a torch relay bearer in Ishikawa Prefecture but withdrew, in Tokyo's Minato Ward on Dec. 13, 2018. (Mainichi/Koichiro Tezuka)

    Tokiwa's agency revealed on its website on March 1 why she withdrew from the relay in detail. Her theater appearance in May and June was already scheduled in January last year. As it overlaps with the torch relay in Ishikawa Prefecture, she apparently told the prefecture's executive committee in September last year that she would not participate. A publicist explained that Tokiwa's agency revealed the details to distance her from Mori's remarks, saying, "It was to clear up public misunderstanding; her withdrawal had nothing to do with the series of problems."

    So why has it become clear at this time that they would not participate? A source close to the games said, "The organizing committee couldn't come up with how to conduct the relay at an early stage because it was overwhelmed by the movement to simplify the games after putting them off."

    The organizing committee made the torch relay's outline public on Sept. 28 last year. The committee finalized the 121-day schedule, maintaining the original plans about the route and period for the relay in each prefecture, half a year after the games' postponement had been decided. Drastic shortening of the relay was also apparently considered in discussions, including countermeasures against the coronavirus, to simplify the games.

    Eventually the relay was finalized as originally planned for reasons including the intentions of sponsors and each local government, but its protagonists -- the torch bearers -- were never considered. An executive at the organizing committee apologetically said, "We kept torch runners in an uncertain situation, including whether or not we would carry out the relay, for a long time." Since the committee made the schedule public, it has asked each prefecture's executive committee and sponsors to resubmit lists of runners and checked their desire to participate. Several celebrities' schedules had already been filled.

    Meanwhile, a new problem had emerged at the same time. As nationwide coronavirus infections surged again from the end of last year, the central government asked the organizing committee to cancel the participation of famous torch bearers on the grounds that "the risk is too large if a lot of people rush to the relay routes." Therefore, what to do with celebrity torch bearers remained uncertain even though the committee sent invitations in December last year to common people whose desire to take part had been confirmed. Announcing all torch runners nationwide at the same time was also put off.

    The Olympic torch is seen in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, on Nov. 7, 2020, during an exhibition tour. (Mainichi/Ryoichi Mochizuki)

    It wasn't until Feb. 25, a month before the relay's start, that the roles of celebrities in the torch relay were finalized. The committee decided that they will not run on public roads, instead taking part in the relay in stadiums, parks and schools, thereby preventing spectators from gathering in crowds. Each prefecture's executive committee went on to announce the list of runners after Feb. 25, which is why the withdrawal of celebrities has emerged one after another. Among some 600 celebrity runners, about 100 have not been consulted over the date and location of where they will run. Among those whom invitations were sent to on Feb. 25, seven have decided not to take part.

    As all this confusion cast a damper on building momentum for the Olympics, a source related to the games said with a sigh, "How the runners were announced was a failure." A representative at one local government, who had been busy coordinating schedules, said with obvious frustration, "We didn't mean to keep it a secret, but the organizing committee instructed the timing of the announcement. As it was right after Mr. Mori's remarks, the image of the torch relay was damaged as a result."

    (Japanese original by Tadashi Murakami, Sports News Department)

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