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Tokyo Olympics torch relay, delayed a year by COVID and still shrouded in coronavirus doubt, kicks off in Japan

Tokyo 2020 Olympic torch relay
Yoshihide Muroya, Japanese aerobatics pilot and race pilot of the Red Bull Air Race World Championship, carries the Olympic torch at Hibarigahara Festival Site, during the last leg of the first day of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic torch relay, in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, March 25, 2021. ISSEI KATO/REUTERS

Tokyo — The Tokyo Olympics torch relay kicked off on Thursday after a one-year delay. The relay was to take place under extreme antiviral restrictions, but officials are hoping it can boost sagging enthusiasm for the beleaguered Summer Games in the four months left before Opening Day.

Shortly before the ceremony began, North Korea fired two ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan, the first such provocation in a year. While the missiles landed outside Japan's territorial waters and exclusive economic zone, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said the aggression violated U.N. Security Council resolutions and "threatened the peace and security of Japan and the surrounding region."

The torch relay got underway with a brief morning ceremony featuring schoolchildren in Japan's Fukushima region. They sang "Hana wa Saku," (Flowers Will Bloom), an anthem composed after the devastating triple disasters of 2011, when a massive earthquake sparked a tsunami and then a nuclear crisis.

World marks 10 years since Fukushima disaster 08:44

The site chosen for the torch relay — the J-Village soccer training facility in Fukushima — was the frontline operations center for the government's response to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident. Launching the relay from Fukushima was meant to dispel images of the prefecture's radiation-tainted aftermath, and instead draw attention to the area's recovery.   

Other destinations along the route will highlight the country's World Heritage and other notable sites, including Mt. Fuji, the "floating shrine" gate of Miyajima, Nara's Great Buddha statue, and the Atomic Bomb Dome.

U.S. athletes get creative to train for postponed 2021 Olympic games 02:48

Strict anti-COVID restrictions kept Thursday's ceremony off-limits to the public and required the runners to keep their distance from one another while moving, and to avoid facing one another while handing off the torch. Other sections of the relay will permit spectators, but they've been asked to refrain from cheering and crowding close together. 

The unprecedented postponement of the Olympics due to the pandemic compelled organizers to keep the Olympic flame burning in Japan over the last year. It was exhibited around the country before reappearing to light the cauldron at Thursday's ceremony in Fukushima.

"The flame kept burning quietly but powerfully, even as the world faced difficult times over the past year," organizing committee chief Seiko Hashimoto told the downsized, masked crowd on hand.

Coinciding with cherry blossom season, the 2.6-pound torches were designed to resemble blooms, in a "sakura gold" hue inspired by the pink flowers synonymous in this country with spring and fresh starts. The torches were made partially from recycled aluminum, the material used to build prefab housing after the Fukushima disasters and, in a first, they're burning hydrogen, an emissions-free fuel. 

Japanese torchbearer Azusa Iwashimizu (R), a member of Japan women's national football team, and Japanese high school student Asato Owada pose for photos as they pass on the Olympic torch ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games outside J-Village National Training Centre in Naraha, Fukushima Prefecture, March 25, 2021. PHILIP FONG/POOL/AFP/Getty

Selected for the initial leg of the relay were 15 members of the Nadeshiko Japan women's soccer team, whose 2011 World Cup victory provided a much-needed lift to a shellshocked country. The team's captain, Homare Sawa, was forced to sit out the event because of a chronic inner-ear condition, ex-coach Norio Sasaki said. 

Dozens of actors and other celebrities recruited to join the 10,000-strong torch relay runners have dropped out, often citing scheduling conflicts but prompting speculation that the Olympics' unrelenting series of mishaps and missteps, including several high-profile sexism incidents, have made it too toxic for many public figures to want to join in. 

Although Japan's COVID-19 death toll, at about 9,000, and its 462,000 total cases are both far lower than the pandemic tolls in the U.S. and many European nations, anxiety that the torch relay could end up causing super-spreader events weighs heavily as the 121-day event begins zig-zagging across the country. It is scheduled to reach all 47 of Japan's prefectures.

Adding to the concerns, Japan's coronavirus vaccine rollout has been notably slow, and most of the country is likely to be still waiting for their inoculations when 15,000 athletes arrive from all corners of the world this summer. 

The price tag for the Tokyo Olympics has already ballooned to more than $15 billion. That's estimated to be the most expensive Olympic Games in history, and some Japanese government audits say that figure actually understates the real expense by half.

Almost the entire cost is being underwritten by Japanese taxpayers.

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