took part in the torch relay before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the scene was chaotic.
“All I can remember is the billowing smoke from the torch, the rain, and desperately trying to keep up with other runners,” said Ms. Matsubayashi, who was then 12 years old and ran through crowds of people with a group accompanying the torch bearer.
This time around, she didn’t even get to break a sweat.
At a horse-racing track on the outskirts of Tokyo this month, Ms. Matsubayashi, now 69, held a torch with both hands and leaned to get it lighted by the torch of a person standing next to her. A ripple of applause followed from a handful of people. Ms. Matsubayashi, who runs an art studio and recently resumed regular jogging, posed for some photos, and that was it. She didn’t run a step.
The torch relay, traditionally a boisterous buildup for the Olympics, with cheering crowds and excited runners, has been stopped in its tracks by Japan’s surge in Covid-19 cases. In the final days before the Tokyo Olympics, it has turned into a restrained affair witnessed by few people.
In ordinary times, a few months before each Olympics, a flame is lighted using the sun’s rays and a parabolic mirror in Olympia in Greece. It is carried around that nation by runners, then brought to the host nation for the crowd-pleasing relay.
In Japan, some 10,000 runners, including former Olympians and celebrities, signed up to run about 200 yards each with a lighted torch, passing on the flame by touching the torch of the next runner. The climax would come when the flame is carried into the Olympic Stadium on July 23 to light a cauldron as part of the opening ceremony.
But with new Covid-19 cases in Tokyo rising to more than 1,000 a day, all that fanfare suddenly seemed risky. So organizers decreed that torch carriers in Japan’s capital should stand in sequestered areas and pass the flame along with a “torch kiss.” The flame would barely move before being transported—in an undisclosed manner, though not by runner—to the next location in Tokyo for a similar event. Forget the cheering crowds. The action would be streamed online.
As for the opening ceremony, that will be held in a mostly empty stadium because of a ban on spectators.
a chef at a fried-pork-cutlet restaurant in his early 20s, had hit the gym four times a week to get in shape after he was selected to run in the relay. Instead of jogging through Tokyo streets, though, he did his turn by passing along the flame in a nearly empty concert hall, walking just a few steps. He dropped his plan for a celebration at the end.
“I had intended to raise my fist in triumph,” he said.
The relay—introduced at the 1936 Berlin Olympics—began last year in Greece, but had to be cut short there after crowds mobbed celebrity runners such as film star
raising fears of infection.
The flame was flown to Japan in March 2020, only for the Games to be postponed almost immediately on its arrival. Finally, the relay began this spring, but the public was directed not to come to watch. The schedules of celebrity runners were kept secret until the last minute.
In some places, local officials who worried about infections ordered runners to carry the flame in closed parks, not on public roads. The lead organizer of the Olympics said he had heard a suggestion that participants run through rice fields, which might deter crowds because the fields are often flooded.
That proposal wasn’t adopted, but the relay route took the torch up mountains and along rivers in boats. By the time the flame reached Tokyo, the organizers had decided there wouldn’t be any movement whatsoever.
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an 85-year-old distance runner, was scheduled to run with the torch in the final days of the relay. Ms. Nakano, who holds six world records in the 80-84 age category, including for the marathon, said she was a little worried that she would be so excited she would run faster than the recommended light jogging pace.
That is no longer an issue. She will simply stand and hold the torch in a closed-off park on Wednesday
“It can’t be helped,” she said. “I feel happy just being able to get involved in the Olympics.”
At least she will get a souvenir. Ms. Nakano plans to buy one of the torches—about 10,000 were produced for the relay—for around $630.
The only exception to the standstill rule in Tokyo was for the portion held on some remote islands that are administratively part of the capital and have experienced fewer infections.
was one of six runners selected on the Ogasawara archipelago, a cluster of tiny islands more than 600 miles south of the Olympic Stadium, with a population of around 2,500.
Ms. Yajima, a 51-year-old who jogs a few miles every morning, said some participants on the mainland sent her messages asking her to run on their behalf.
“I ran with a smile, carrying those wishes with me,” she said.
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