With the arrival of spring comes the promise of new life.
And after the hardships of winter – both real and metaphorical – the Grand Start of the Olympic Torch Relay on Thursday 25 March was awash in flowers and welcome bloom as the residents of Japan called out to the world, a year later than expected due to a postponement caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, a message of warmth and opening.
The ceremony marked the start of the Olympic Torch Relay that leads the way up to the Opening Ceremony (on 23 July 2021) of this summer’s Olympic Games. The event was smaller than originally planned, but it met the moment with a subtle flourish. A spirit of sharing was alive on a hazy morning in Fukushima as it will be, surely, over the course of the next 121 days while the torch, lit by the rays of the sun at the Temple of Hera in Greece, makes its way, deliberately and purposefully, toward the cauldron of the Tokyo Olympic Stadium. There it will preside from its perch over the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
Fukushima Prefecture was the perfect venue for the torch to begin its four-month journey to Tokyo. The area was devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011 and the effects of the ensuing tsunami and nuclear disaster are still felt there to this day. The city, though, has become a symbol of hardship and resilience. Of tragedy and triumph.
“I feel like it’s all finally underway,” enthused HASHIMOTO Seiko, President of the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee. “It so happens these Games were postponed and as a result, overlapped with the 10-year anniversary of the earthquake. I couldn’t be more grateful if we got through the 121 days in one piece".
Iwashimizu and 14 other members of the Nadeshiko team, the most revered sports heroes in recent Japanese history, arrived in front of the stage in white tracksuits, red sashes streaked across the front. They were ready to inspire the nation again as they had ten before when, via a penalty shootout, they triumphed over the mighty and twice-world champion USA in the Women’s World Cup Final.
Iwashimizu – who also won a silver medal at the London 2012 Olympics – took the flame first and off the women went with their coach SASAKI Norio – at a slow pace suited the early awakenings of springtime. She was followed by her teammates, in diametric formation out onto the fields of the J-Village and then onto the quiet streets surrounding the center. They smiled and laughed. This is, after all, not a sombre event but one that marks the opening of something joyful.
“It’s unfortunate the players overseas and Sawa [Homare – captain of the 2011 world champions and that year’s FIFA Women’s Player of the Year] could not be here but we ran for them today as well,” said coach Sasaki. “The J-Village is sacred to the Nadeshiko and I couldn’t be happier the relay is starting here. I’m convinced these Games will inspire and help liven Japan. I realise the entire country is under enormous pressure but we want to do our part to help.”
And as the Olympics belong, in ways many and real, to all, the torch was passed, first to 16-year-old football goalkeeper OWADA Asato, a high school student in Fukushima who smiled broadly when receiving the flame.
And then it went on to other Japanese torchbearers, picked from over half a million applicants. The Flame moved its way slowly, methodically passing between hands toward the cauldron in the Olympic Stadium.
In the days to come, the flame will pass through 10,000 hands in a relay whose theme is, aptly given the times and pandemic and hardship all over the world, ‘Hope Lights our Way.’ First it will arrive in Tochigi on Sunday and then Gunma on 30 March. It will move through 47 Prefectures and 859 municipalities, bringing the hope of new life and springtime in the glow of this most ancient flame – one peculiarly resistant to extinguishing.