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COVID-19 resurgence in Japan forces series of public Olympic torch relay cancellations

Ehime Gov. Tokihiro Nakamura is seen in tears as he apologizes to local torchbearers during the Olympic flame ceremony in the city of Matsuyama, on April 21, 2021. (Mainichi/Tatsuya Fujii)

The Tokyo Olympic torch relay is in disarray amid a fourth wave of coronavirus infections in Japan, as the COVID-19 resurgence has forced local organizers to cancel legs on public roads in various prefectures and downsize related events. Will the "light of hope" make it to Tokyo in July as planned?

    On the night of April 21, Ehime Gov. Tokihiro Nakamura was in tears as he bowed in apology to torchbearers at a venue in the prefectural capital Matsuyama, which was supposed to be used to celebrate the arrival of the Olympic flame, following the cancellation of the relay on public roads. Instead, the participants only got to hold and raise the torches at the venue.

    "I'm so sorry to everyone who was looking forward to running (with a torch) for not being able to provide that opportunity," Gov. Nakamura tearfully told the torchbearers.

    One participant told the Mainichi Shimbun, "It's better (than nothing) that we had the ceremony," but they did not look completely convinced.

    The torch relay kicked off on March 25 in Fukushima Prefecture, under the theme "Hope Lights Our Way." From the very beginning, the months-long event was faced with a dilemma between fostering momentum for the games and maintaining coronavirus preventive measures. And now, the virus resurgence is hitting the relay head-on. Amid the COVID-19 outbreak, organizers can barely have the flame shown to the public or allow torchbearers to actually run on public routes.

    Following cancellations of the relay on public roads in Osaka Prefecture and the city of Matsuyama, the May 1 and 2 legs on the main island in Japan's southernmost prefecture of Okinawa were also called off. The flame will instead be carried around the Nago municipal civic center on May 1 and inside Okinawa Peace Memorial Park in the city of Itoman on May 2 without a public audience. The venues will be covered with tents to prevent crowds, and related parties including the event staff as well as media personnel will be required to submit proof of their negative results from polymerase chain reaction testing before entering.

    In southwest Japan's Oita Prefecture, a relay route in the prefectural capital Oita on April 24 was shortened at the last minute, as organizers feared that a large number of people would try to see celebrity runners including Oita native Rino Sashihara, 28. She said, "It would have been more desirable (to run) surrounded by many people in ordinary circumstances," as she explained the difficult situation.

    (Japanese original by Keigo Kawasaki, Tokyo City News Department; Tomoe Saito and Ryo Endo, Matsuyama Bureau; Tomohiro Tsujimoto, Oita Bureau, and Nozomu Takeuchi and Takayasu Endo, Naha Bureau)

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