The 121-day relay begins the official countdown to the Games, which start on July 23

By Georgia Slater
March 25, 2021 01:00 PM
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Tokyo Olympic torch relay
Credit: KIM KYUNG-HOON/POOL/AFP via Getty

The official countdown to the Tokyo Summer Olympics is underway as the postponed torch relay began its 121-day journey across Japan on Thursday.

The relay, which comes four months before the Games are due to begin on July 23, kicked off from Japan's Fukushima prefecture, an area that was previously ravaged by the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown, according to The Washington Post.

The winning team from the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup acted as the first torchbearers, bringing out the flame from the J-Village indoor soccer training center. The ceremony was closed to the public due to COVID-19 but was livestreamed.

"The torch of Tokyo 2020 will become a bright light for hope for Japanese citizens and citizens in the world and a light at the end of the tunnel," Tokyo 2020 president Seiko Hashimoto said at the ceremony.

Tokyo Olympic torch relay
Credit: Philip Fong - Pool/Getty
Tokyo Olympic torch relay
Credit: PHILIP FONG/POOL/AFP via Getty

The flame will continue to travel through all 47 Japanese prefectures, where spectators watching the relay will be required to social distance, wear masks and cheer quietly to prevent the spread of the virus.

Tokyo Olympic torch relay
Credit: CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty
Tokyo Olympic torch relay
Credit: DU XIAOYI/POOL/AFP via Getty

Spectators were previously warned that the relay could be scaled down or canceled if they do not comply with the rules, the Associated Press reported.

"This is going to be a long relay, and as we may find the necessity to change the rules of operation around the pandemic, or as the local conditions change," Hidemasa Nakamura, games delivery officer for the organizing committee, said.

Last weekend, officials announced that overseas spectators will not be allowed at the upcoming Games amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Citing the challenges of new COVID-19 variants and restrictions on international travel, officials said in a press release that not allowing overseas spectators "will further contribute to ensure safe and secure Games for all participants and the Japanese public." They added that ticket holders from abroad will be refunded. 

Tokyo 2020 Olympics
Tokyo Summer Olympics logo
| Credit: CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty

"We share the disappointment of all enthusiastic Olympic fans from around the world, and of course the families and friends of the athletes, who were planning to come to the Games," IOC President Thomas Bach said in another release. "For this I am truly sorry. We know that this is a great sacrifice for everybody. We have said from the very beginning of this pandemic that it will require sacrifices." 

The Tokyo Olympics, postponed from last summer due to the ongoing pandemic, are currently scheduled to take place from July 23 through Aug. 8, 2021. Meanwhile, the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing are slated to take place that February.

The move to bar spectators from abroad has long been expected. Last month, the IOC published the first of its official Tokyo 2020 Playbooks that outline rules and regulations that will be put into place at the Games — including a ban on physical touch.