Delayed by a year, no overseas visitors allowed to attend, fly-in fly-out competitors — the Tokyo 2021 Olympic and Paralympic Games will be unlike any other.
- The torch relay will begin in Fukushima, which is still recovering from a devastating tsunami in 2011
- The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in international visitors being banned from entering Japan
- Organisers say the relay has two messages, one for the people of Japan still recovering, and one for the world navigating its way out of the coronavirus pandemic.
An Olympics-inspired tourism boost to the economy was dashed last weekend when officials announced ticket holders from outside Japan would have to apply for a refund, as they are not allowed to enter a country which is still struggling to contain coronavirus.
Tourism in Japan is down 99.3 per cent with borders all-but shut, according to official data.
Before the Olympics were delayed last March, Japan had set a goal of 40 million visitors during the Olympic year.
Locals had been using the shutdown to revamp their businesses and upgrade their services. Now they are asking why they bothered.
Thursday marks the start of the final countdown to a Games some still doubt will happen.
The Olympic torch relay will begin in Fukushima Prefecture, a place the world recognises despite most of us never having been there.
The devastation a decade ago from an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant meltdown left physical ruin and emotional scars for those who survived.
They lost children, siblings, parents, friends, neighbours and entire communities — homes, schools, and workplaces washed away.
Fukushima has been mostly rebuilt, but it is not what it once was.
It was selected by Olympic organisers as the starting point for the relay because it represented a message of hope.
A year later than originally planned, what’s been dubbed the “Hope Lights Our Way” relay now carries twin messages — one for the people of Japan still recovering, and one for the world navigating its way out of the coronavirus pandemic.
It will begin with a ceremony inside the J-Village, Japan’s National Football Training Centre which was used as a base for the clean-up after the 2011 tragedy.
Shigeki Koyano is a Fukushima local and the official in charge of the relay start.
“The fact that it starts in Fukushima, and all the attention that will be on Fukushima, is very important for the people,” he told ABC program The Ticket.
“All of the recovery work is pretty much complete and the town itself is … not back to what it used to look like, but it is complete in a new way.
“But, of course, with the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant there’s a lot more work to be done.”
Instead of streets lined with people to cheer the passing of the Olympic torch, it has been recommended that locals stay home and watch it online.
The route has been altered to take it off main roads where crowds can gather, and instead taken onto back streets.
In some cases the route will not be made public until the hour before the flame’s arrival.
It will wind its way around Japan, stopping in all 47 prefectures, in 120 municipalities, over 120 days, before being carried into Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremony on July 23.
“In the selection process [for the torch bearers] … what was important was how they felt about running this race … they must really love where they live, that’s the most important thing,” Mr Koyano said.
One of those chosen to carry the flame is local surfer Sato Hiroshi, who missed out on being selected in Japan’s surfing team as the sport makes its Olympic debut.
He said Fukushima locals had a strong affinity with the ocean — as either fisherman, surfers or beach-goers — and the natural beauty of the environment brought many back after the 2011 tragedy.
“Through the sport I have formed bonds with everyone. Such bonds were truly precious when the earthquake hit, people asked me how I was, if I had any clothes, and my surfboard,” he said.
“It came home to me that as an athlete I was really supported by everyone here.
“A few years after the disaster, I returned here to my hometown to surf again. I was really happy to be reunited with the locals at sea, I love it here in my hometown.
“The region is not restored yet but we’ve seen the worst so it can only get better.
“I work at a hospital now, inpatients say to me,mccarthy ‘Hey, I hear you’re a torchbearer! Good luck!’ I can’t wait to run.
“I will pass on the flame with our hope and determination.”
Logistics company Alem International has been involved in every Olympic torch relay since the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
Typically, work begins two years ahead of the relay with government negotiations, obtaining local authority permits, working with intelligence and security agencies, coordinating transport networks, travel, organising accommodation and other requirements.
Chairman and chief executive Steven McCarthy said despite the relay becoming incredibly commercialised, it is the local heroes who bring the focus back to what is important for each town, and that’s what makes the relay memorable.
“There is a phenomenon,” he said.
“After sitting in a command car behind tens of thousands of torch bearers over all the relays we’ve done around the world … there’s something that’s unique after you run with the torch.
“It never fails — people look at the crowd, they have people cheering for them on the side of the road and they don’t know most of them … then they look up at the flame and you’d swear that they’d been transported back to 776 BC for the first Olympic Games.
“That’s the kind of connectivity that’s absolutely global, that’s the moment you wish for … it really touches the heart and soul.”
Right now the heart and soul of the Japanese people could do with something uplifting.
Most of them don’t want the Games to go ahead this year, neither do most corporations.
The original budget of around $7 billion is now thought to be closer to $25 billion.
Host cities make most of their money through ticket sales and merchandise.
With limited crowds of locals, Tokyo’s ability to recover even a portion of the costs continues to dwindle.
“‘Hope Lights [Our] Way’ is their theme and I think that’s even more relevant now in COVID times,” Mr McCarthy said.
He is not wrong. Hope seems to be all they have right now.
And as for Mr Koyano in Fukushima, while there is pressure in being the first prefecture to deliver a portion of the torch relay, the side benefit is he will be the first to complete his work.
Afterwards he hopes to catch some of the Olympic Games in person.
“Afterwards I want to see the athletics, I am a marathon runner, but that won’t be in Tokyo, it will be in Sapporo,” he said.
The IOC demanded the marathon be moved outside of Tokyo’s stifling summer heat, and it will now be staged in the capital of Japan’s northern Hokkaido island.
“I also want to see the badminton because there is a player from Fukushima, Momota, I really want people to watch him.”
Kento Momota is the world’s number one player, and a two-time world champion.
No doubt hope is weighing on his shoulders too.