The torch relay for the postponed Tokyo Olympics began its 121-day journey across Japan on Thursday and is headed toward the opening ceremony in Tokyo on July 23. The relay began in northeastern Fukushima prefecture, the area that was devastated by the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and the meltdown of three nuclear reactors. The first runner with the torch was Azusa Iwashimizu, a key player in the Japan team that won the Women’s World Cup in 2011, the AP reports. "The torch of Tokyo 2020 will become a bright light for hope for Japanese citizens and citizens in the world and a light at the end of the tunnel," said Seiko Hashimoto, the president of the local organizing committee and a former Olympian. The ceremony was closed to the public because of the fear of spreading COVID-19 but was streamed live.
Fans were told to social-distance along the roadside as the torch passes, and they were to refrain from loud cheering. Organizers have said they will stop or reroute the relay if crowding becomes a problem during the four-month parade. About 10,000 runners are expected to take part, with the relay touching Japan's 47 prefectures. Organizers confirmed a bit of bad luck: the flame in the torch was blown out during one leg of the relay. As has happened in other Olympics, it was re-lit by a back-up lantern that also carries the flame that was kindled in Greece last year. Local organizers and the International Olympic Committee hope the relay will turn public opinion in Japan in favor of the Olympics. Sentiments expressed in polls in Japan so far are overwhelmingly negative with about 80% suggesting another delay or cancellation. (The Olympic flame landed in Japan just over a year ago.)