Torch relay among final hurdles for postponed Tokyo Olympics

TOKYO (AP) — The Olympic torch relay is yet another hurdle for the postponed Tokyo Games. It kicks off in two weeks from northeastern Japan. Any stumble could sew more doubts about the risk of holding the Olympics in a pandemic.

A year ago, the Olympics were postponed just as the relay began. The start will again be from Fukushima Prefecture, the centre 10 years ago of the devastating earthquake, tsunami and meltdown of three nuclear reactors.

At least 18,000 people died.

Olympic organisers are asking for restraint along the four-month route that will touch all 47 prefectures and involve 10,000 runners. Shouting and cheering will not be allowed. Polite clapping will be the order of the day. Torchbearers can run without a mask if they choose. And there could be changes to the routes and some stops and starts depending on conditions.

The start of the torch relay on March 25 is also likely to be held without fans, according to local reports. The Olympics open on July 23 followed by the Paralympics on August 24.

Two women take a selfie with the Olympic rings in the background in the Odaiba section of Tokyo on March 12. PHOTO: AP

Q: This feels like an additional risk. Why are organisers taking it?

A: Because of the large sponsorship deals with Coca-Cola and Toyota. There was talk of doing away with the relay, but that was quickly nixed. The Olympic relay dates back to the 1936 Games in Berlin.

Organisers hope this time it will drive enthusiasm for the Olympics. Surveys show about 80 per cent of the Japanese public say the games should be postponed or cancelled.

The success of the relay is so important that CEO of the Tokyo organising committee Toshiro Muto has been put in charge. Any slip, of course, would raise more questions about risks around the Olympics.

Q: Where do we stand again with fans from abroad? Will there be any?

A: If you believe all of the leaks in the Japanese media — no. Organising committee President Seiko Hashimoto has said she hopes to have a decision by March 25. Local reports say the decision to exclude foreign fans has already been made and could be announced as early as next week.

The other key decision will be the numbers of fans allowed in venues. This is expected in April.

Local organisers have budgetted USD800 million income from ticket sales. It’s their third largest source of income, and it will take a large hit. Any shortfall will have to be made up by the Japanese taxpayers. Estimates suggest they are bearing about 80 per cent of Olympic costs.

Q: Are these Olympics snake-bitten?

A: It’s hard to recall one that has been more troubled. And recall that Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and Sochi in 2014 had massive problems.

Ironically, International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach said Tokyo was the best-ever prepared Olympics until the pandemic hit. And, despite the problems, Japan is one of the few countries that could pull this off.

IOC member Tsunekazu Takeda was forced to step down two years ago as head of the Japanese Olympic Committee in a vote-buying scandal tied to Tokyo winning the bid in 2013. His IOC membership was also removed. He denied any wrongdoing.

Last month Yoshiro Mori was forced to resign as president of the organising committee after making sexist remarks. Basically, he said women talk too much.

Then there is the issue of costs. A study by the University of Oxford said these are the most expensive Olympics on record.

Q: Can athletes expect to be tested often?

A: In a word, yes. Athletes will have to pass a test before boarding flights from home. Organisers said they will be tested upon arrival in Tokyo. And they will be tested while in Tokyo. The first edition of the so-called Playbooks released last month says athletes will be tested about every four days in Japan. The current Playbooks are vague and are to be updated in April and June with more specific information.

The Kyodo news agency is reporting that the IOC has asked Tokyo for even “more stringent” testing.