When the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro held its closing ceremony, part of the proceedings was the tease for the next Summer Games venue four years on. This was accomplished by having Nintendo videogame character Super Mario travel via warp pipe from Japan to Rio, where he revealed himself as then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, inviting the world to Japan in 2020. Come that year, the COVID-19 pandemic has been postponed a year. Even in 2021, the situation remained precarious enough that foreign spectators were banned for the Olympics in July. This past Thursday, the delayed torch relay for the Games, severely limited as it is, finally kicked off.

ESPN 5 reports that the Tokyo Olympics Torch Relay commenced as planned, if about a year late, at the starting point in Japan that would make the most impact for the country, before the pandemic at least. The first batch of torchbearers was at Naraha, Fukushima prefecture. This was among the areas of the country that was devastated by the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, with parts of Fukushima irradiated by a damaged nuclear power plant. Football player Azusa Iwashimizu, member of the Japan team that won the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup, was first to bear the Olympic flame.

In what has become the defining characteristic of this edition of the Summer Olympics, the torch relay starting ceremony barred spectators, leaving only the officials and participants. Audiences could only catch the opening of the relay by watching it on live-stream, though residents in the areas where the runners will pass can stand on the roadside at the estimated time, maintaining social distance and refraining from loud cheering. Some 10,000 runners – Japanese athletes and ordinary citizens – will bear the torches with the Olympic flame across the 47 prefectures of Japan over the next 121 days.

Despite a still significantly high percentage of the Japanese population preferring to again postpone or simply cancel the Games at Tokyo, the government and organizers have kept to the schedule of opening the event this July. A bubble environment is being set up for athletes, limiting their freedom of movement between the Tokyo Bay Athletes’ Village, training facilities and competition areas. Any local spectators at the venues during the Games are encouraged to cheer for all Olympians to make up for the lack of foreigners.

Among the Olympic torchbearers is a 118-year-old woman who is the current oldest living person in the world. The 2020/21 Tokyo Summer Olympics will open this coming July 23.

Image from Olympic Channel