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Public pessimism persists ahead of Olympic torch relay

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Public pessimism: a demonstrator holds a sign to protest against the Olympic Games in Tokyo (Photograph by Issei Kato)
A demonstrator holds a sign to protest against the Olympic Games in Tokyo

With little more than a week until the start of the Tokyo Olympic torch relay, officials and organisers continue to face overwhelming public pessimism in the host country.

The prestigious event, which marks the official countdown to the postponed Games, will begin in Fukushima on March 25, just four days after Tokyo is scheduled to lift a state of emergency declared in early January amid a sharp rise in coronavirus cases in the capital.

The relay opening ceremony at J-Village — a football training complex that became the nerve centre for the response to the March 2011 meltdown at nearby Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station — will be held without spectators.

However, ahead of the event and the Games themselves, which are scheduled from July 23 to August 8, Olympic organisers are still struggling to gain the support of the Japanese public, while some athletes have also pulled out of the torch relay itself.

Members of the 2011 women’s World Cup-winning football team will carry the torch on the first domestic leg, but more than 30 torchbearers, including former Japan rugby player Yu Tamura, and star sumo wrestler Shoudai Naoya, have decided not to run the relay, which will take 121 days and cover all 47 prefectures across Japan.

Tokyo 2020 president Seiko Hashimoto has announced that all those withdrawn torchbearers are welcome back.

The seven-times Olympian, told local media that running the torch relay is a "tremendous honour" and "great opportunity“, while also stating that she was confident that “as many people as possible will take part”.

Meanwhile, demonstrations and protests broke out in front of the headquarters of Tokyo 2020 this week with in light of a perceived feeling among the public that Japan’s national coronavirus vaccination programme is lagging behind those of other advanced countries.

Banners and placards reading "Cancel the Olympics!" were held up by demonstrators while their chants reportedly could be heard through the streets.

"I don't understand why athletes can get so many Covid-19 tests while many Japanese can't," one demonstrator was quoted as saying in the local media.

“Hosting the Games is only meaningful for organisers and they are not looking at the people."

Recent surveys in the host nation also suggest protesters are far from alone in their pessimism towards the Games.

In a survey conducted this month by a Japanese broadcaster, almost 80 per cent of respondents indicated their belief the Olympics should be postponed again or cancelled altogether.

That is a dramatic increase from last October, when less than half of the participants responded in that way, while when Tokyo originally won the right to host the Games in 2013, 70 per cent of residents backed it.

The Olympics have also failed to win over medical sceptics, with a survey late last year finding that 40 per cent of Tokyo-based doctors believed it would be “impossible” to stage the Games this year, with the same percentage believing widespread vaccination would be necessary for the Olympics to proceed.

It still remains unclear when local residents will receive vaccinations ahead of the Games. Japan started vaccinating medical workers last month and plans to begin doing so for the elderly population in April.

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Published March 17, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated March 16, 2021 at 5:55 pm)

Public pessimism persists ahead of Olympic torch relay

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