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Olympic torch relay crowding despite virus measures fuels concern as Nagoya leg looms

Spectators who could not get into the reservation-only departure ceremony are seen waiting for the torch relay runners in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture, on March 28, 2021. (Mainichi/Yuzuru Ota)

As of April 1, the Tokyo Olympics torch relay has been underway for a week. The organizing committee for the games has acknowledged that crowds gathered during its tour through east Japan's Tochigi Prefecture, and some municipalities have begun making advance regulations on events and roadside spectators.

    While issues remain over how to "balance the need to boost momentum for the games with the need to stop infections," the torch reaches the densely-populated prefecture of Aichi in central Japan next week.

    About two- to three-row crowd of about 200 spectators closed in on the course fence to catch a glimpse of the torchbearer appearing in front of the track and field stadium in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture, at about 9:20 a.m. on March 28. On that day, many people came to see the prefecture's first runner, TV personality Kunikazu Katsumata. But because it was reservation only, people who couldn't get in the stadium gathered near its exit. "It's getting too crowded. Please disperse," security staff called, but to no avail.

    At a press conference that evening, the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games acknowledged that "there had been a crowded situation, which must be avoided," at the location in Ashikaga. Since the relay started in northeast Japan's Fukushima Prefecture on March 25, crowds have gathered at various points the torch passed, but this was the first time for the organizing committee to acknowledge them.

    Its guidelines for preventing infections clearly state that the relay will be suspended if excessive crowding occurs. Among the criteria is "multiple rows (of people) overlapping without sufficient space between them." However, the actual decision to suspend the relay is unlikely to be simple. A government official explained their dilemma: "We can't allow people to gather close together, but we also have to create excitement."

    Makoto Yokoyama, 82, a local who cheered on the relay runner traveling down the streets of Ikaho hot spring resort in Shibukawa, Gunma Prefecture, on March 31, said, "Some spectators were warned for not wearing masks, some were talking loudly. I thought it was a bit troubling because local people had been careful to avoid spreading the coronavirus for this day."

    A crowd of masked spectators wave and point cameras at the Olympic torchbearer in front of Tatebayashi Station in Tatebayashi, Gunma Prefecture, on March 30, 2021. (Mainichi/Naomichi Senoo)

    In light of increasing infections in Nagano Prefecture, the prefectural capital Nagano has decided to hold a spectator-less April 1 event commemorating the torch's arrival. The city also chose not to allow audiences to the event along the road near its famous landmark Zenkoji temple. The precautionary move was made due to expectations large numbers of people would visit the area to see the Olympic flame.

    The torch will reach Aichi Prefecture on April 5 and go on to Osaka Prefecture on April 13 amid concerns of a virus resurgence, particularly in urban areas. At a March 30 press conference, Tamayo Marukawa, the minister in charge of the Olympics, stressed that "urban areas will be a major issue."

    How will the Aichi Prefecture capital city of Nagoya, home to about 2.3 million, cope with the relay?

    According to the prefectural executive committee, the city will start taking precautions several hours before runners pass through. In the city center, where there are crowding concerns, security staff will be stationed every 10 to 20 meters. In the case of celebrity runners, the committee has made alterations including restricting entries by drawing lots in advance. They also encourage people to watch event livestreams.

    The official heading the Nagoya event said, "This is the first time the torch relay is being held in a major metropolitan area, and it is attracting a lot of attention. We are concerned because it's unknown how big a turnout it will be. We would like to ask for understanding from prefecture residents so that the event does not get crowded.

    (Japanese original by Yuzuru Ota, Ashikaga Local Bureau, Masahito Minagawa, Nagano Bureau, Minami Michioka, Maebashi Bureau, and Shinichiro Kawase, Nagoya News Center)

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