FUKUSHIMA, JAPAN (REUTERS) - Japan officially started the Olympic torch relay in Fukushima on Thursday (March 25), kicking off a four-month countdown to the Summer Games in Tokyo.
Members of the Japanese national women's football team used the Olympic flame, flown in from Greece, to light the torch.
The runners, some wearing masks and white uniforms decorated with red, ran out of the starting point and passed on the flame to the next runner. About a dozen staff escorted the runner, racing together and following a van guiding the relay.
Helicopters for live broadcasting followed the run but only a handful of spectators lined the roads, keeping distance, clapping and waving, waiting for the torch to pass.
The starting ceremony was held at J-Village in Fukushima, a sports complex converted into a staging ground for workers decommissioning the crippled nuclear power plant that caused tens of thousands to flee.
Originally planned for thousands of fans as a celebration of Japan's recovery, the low-key event was closed to the public. It featured a drum concert and dance performances by a group of residents from Fukushima, followed by a children's choir.
Some 10,000 runners will take the torch across Japan's 47 prefectures, including far-flung islands, starting from the site of the 2011 quake and tsunami that killed about 20,000 people, highlighting the government's "Reconstruction Olympics" theme.
The quadrennial Games were delayed from 2020 due to Covid-19 and is the first ever organised during a global pandemic.
The first section will not have spectators to avoid large crowds and roadside onlookers elsewhere will have to wear masks and socially distance along the way as Japan battles the deadly virus and scrambles to vaccinate its people.
"For the past year, as the entire world underwent a difficult period, the Olympic flame was kept alive quietly but powerfully," Tokyo 2020 president Seiko Hashimoto told a small group of dignitaries and media at the opening ceremony.
"The small flame did not lose hope, and just like the cherry blossom buds that are ready to bloom, it was waiting for this day."
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga assured reporters in Tokyo that the government was cooperating with the Tokyo government and the International Olympic Committee to host a secure Games.
"We will do our utmost in terms of coronavirus measures and continue to work with related areas to contain the spread of infections and hope to work towards a safe and secure Games," he said.
Olympics Minister Tamayo Marukawa added that she hoped the public's sentiment towards the Tokyo Games would improve as the torch relay proceeded.
The majority of the public are against the Olympics being held as scheduled, polls show, and Japan is the slowest among advanced economies with its vaccination roll out.
The relay, which will culminate with the Olympic opening ceremony on July 23, has been hit by several high-profile runner cancellations as celebrities and top-level athletes have pulled out, citing late notice and worries over the pandemic.
Japan has fared better than most countries during the pandemic, with fewer than 9,000 coronavirus deaths. But a third wave of infections has pushed the numbers to record highs, triggering a state of emergency in Tokyo and other areas that was lifted this week.