Olympics Torch Relay Kicks Off as Japan Presses Ahead With Games
Illuminated Olympic rings float in the waters off Odaiba island in Tokyo. (Photographer: Toru Hanai/Bloomberg)

Olympics Torch Relay Kicks Off as Japan Presses Ahead With Games

The Tokyo Olympic torch relay began Thursday in Fukushima, the ceremonial start to the delayed event and a signal of Japan’s determination to press ahead with the games amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Exactly a year after the games were officially delayed, the stakes are high for the government and organizers. The delay added at least $2.8 billion on top of an already expensive games. Venues have been rescheduled and sponsorships have been renewed.

Olympics Torch Relay Kicks Off as Japan Presses Ahead With Games

The Games remain hugely valuable to broadcasters around the world, who have paid dearly for the rights. The upcoming Beijing 2022 Winter Games adds to the pressure on politicians to pull off a successful event.

“There’s too much invested and too many sunk costs, and there’s still a chance to make something back financially, even if it’s only to cut the losses,” said Paul Nadeau, an adjunct fellow with the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In March 2020, the relay was called off at the last minute amid panic over the growing pandemic. Hours later, Olympics officials announced the Summer Games would be delayed a year.

While skeptics remain and coronavirus variants add another layer of uncertainties, the environment has changed in the last 12 months. More is known about the virus and preventive measures, and vaccinations have started.

Olympics Torch Relay Kicks Off as Japan Presses Ahead With Games

Organizers have also acknowledged that the games can’t proceed as originally planned. Overseas spectators are now banned. Cheering is discouraged along the torch relay route, which travels through Japan’s 47 prefectures before the July 23 start of the games. Organizers are encouraging fans to watch the online stream as much as possible.

Governor of Shimane prefecture, located in western Japan, earlier last month threatened to cancel local relay events unless the host city of Tokyo and the country’s government take more aggressive steps to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Public opinion remains firmly against holding the Games, though the opposition is softening a bit. Just 27% in a March 20-21 poll by the Asahi newspaper said that the Games should take place this summer, up from 11% who felt that way in the winter. Meanwhile, the local organizing committee has distracted from the ongoing challenges of the pandemic with a series of gaffes and public relations missteps.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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