Torch Arrival 5_Rings blown to the wind
The Olympic rings in the sky, blowin’ in the wind.

In 1964, on Saturday, October 10, the Blue Impulse aerobatic jet team that painted the brilliantly blue sky with the Olympic rings on the opening day of the Tokyo Olympics, symbolizing then that the sky’s the limit for Japan.

In 2020, on Saturday, March 20, the Blue Impulse team reprised their role from nearly 56 years prior, sketching the five rings in the sky during the ceremony welcoming to Japan the sacred Olympic fire from Greece.

 

Unfortunately, the rings were immediately washed away by the blustery winds over Matsushima Air base in Miyagi prefecture, symbolizing, perhaps, that our limits are not quite so high.

 

I watched the officials, athletes and celebrities line up ceremoniously, undoubtedly proud to represent Japan in this extraordinary event. The Olympic flame is scheduled to start a nation-wide relay from Futaba, Fukushima on March 26 and end in Tokyo at the Opening Ceremonies of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics on July 24, perhaps at that time, showing the world that the Tokyo2020 Games are truly the “Recovery Olympics,” as the organizers have billed them.

 

But I couldn’t help but imagine that each and every one of them harbored the question, “Will this flame actually ignite the Olympic Cauldron on July 24?”

Torch Arrival 1

 

President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Thomas Bach, Tokyo2020 chief, Yoshiro Mori and Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe among many other officials have said that the Tokyo Olympics are going to take place as scheduled. “The I.O.C. remains fully committed to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, and with more than four months to go before the Games there is no need for any drastic decisions at this stage,” said Bach.

 

The cool and patient approach of the IOC may be the right approach, but their words are beginning to seem surreal, and increasingly at odds with the heated and urgent voices of athletes and officials around the world.

 

“Of course the IOC and the whole world wants a successful Olympics. But for that to happen I strongly believe the event needs to be postponed – unless the authorities can guarantee it will be business as usual, which I don’t believe they can,” said Guy Learmonth on March 17, who is competing for a spot on the Great British track team.

 

“I’m not against the Olympics. But saying that the Olympics will still go on is a big mistake in communication,” said Giovanni Petrucci on March 19, who served as president of the Italian Olympic Committee for 14 years.

 

“Our athletes are under tremendous pressure, stress and anxiety, and their mental health and wellness should be among the highest priorities. It is with the burden of these serious concerns that we respectfully request that the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee advocate for the postponement of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 by one year,” wrote USA Swimming CEO, Tim Hinchey, to the head of the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee CEO, Sarah Hirshland, on March 20.

 

The pressure on the local officials in Japan is immense, and we are seeing fissures in this brave front that the Games must go on. Recently two prominent Japanese voices have spoken up:

 

 

Japan is hosting the biggest, most logistically complex big-tent event in the world this year, but decisions regarding cancellation or postponement are made by the IOC. And as long as the IOC takes a wait-and-see approach, waiting to the last possible moment before making such a decision, Japanese officials believe they must do the same.

 

The decision that has to be made is a thankless one – there will be an outcry whether the Games go on as scheduled, are postponed or cancelled. I have no doubt that the IOC and the Tokyo2020 Olympic and Paralympic Organizing Committee are doing the best they can to make a wise decision.

 

In the meanwhile, the pressure continues to build, and reality continues to distort.

Torch Arrival 2
Wrestler and three-time gold medalist, Saori Yoshida, and judoka and three-time gold medalist Tadahiro Nomura, welcome the sacred flame to Japan.

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Sacred Flame in Kagoshima 1
Sacred Flame during torch relay in Kagoshima in September, 1964

It was called the Flame of Hope – a flickering flame kept alive in a boat lantern in the city of Kagoshima. Until it wasn’t.

The sacred flame came to Japan after being ignited in Olympia, Greece, and traversing South, Southeast and East Asia. When the flame arrived in Kagoshima on September 9, 1964, one of the many torch relay runners, a sports store owner, took his torch back home with the flame still alive. When the principal of the local elementary school saw the flame, he said he wanted his students to see it.

The Lantern that Held the Olympic Flame
The Lantern that Held the Olympic Flame

And thus was born the idea to keep the Olympic flame alive, where it finally settled in a city youth training center. It was called the Flame of Hope. And for decades, residents of Kagoshima would over the years request the honor of using the Olympic flame to ignite fires for weddings, festivals and camp outings. For all intents and purposes, the Flame of Hope became an Eternal Flame, at least that is what the people of the youth training center dedicated to protecting.

Then one day in November, 2013, the flame went out, although no one really knew that until recently. In reports that came out only last week in October 2017, the head of the youth training center admitted this: “I saw with my eyes that the flame went out on November 21,” he added. “We re-lit the fire and kept it going for about two weeks, but I thought that was not good.”

According to that AFP report, the head of the center was feeling considerable pressure at that time as the news of Tokyo’s selection for the 2020 Olympics was bringing considerable attention to Kagoshima and the legacy of the eternal flame from 1964. “At that time, I could not say something that could destroy (people’s) dreams,” added the official, who declined to be named.

With so many people requesting use of the Flame of Hope, the guilt over deceiving the public had reached its breaking point, so he recently decided to come clean. In the past four years, the Flame of Hope had actually been re-lit by a magnifying glass and sunlight in December, 2013.

To be fair, the Olympic flame has a history of being extinguished, particularly those held by runners during torch relays, most recently when striking teachers disrupted the torch relay prior to the 2016 Rio Olympics.

But you have to feel for the employees of the Kagoshima youth training center – to see hope flicker out before their very eyes. Fortunately, hope takes on many forms, and still fuels expectations for greatness in 2020.

The Olympic torch relay passing through Bangkok, Thailand.
The Olympic torch relay passing through Bangkok, Thailand.

The 1964 Tokyo Games were the first Olympics to be held in Asia, and not only was Japan busting with pride, so was a good part of Asia. Thus it was decided that the tradition of transporting the Olympic flame to the host country should include a roadshow through Asia.

“It was the first time the Olympics were held in Asia,” Charanjit Singh told me. “And during that period the Japanese just rose to the occasion. There was so much devastation (after the war),” explained the captain of the Indian field hockey team. “But instead of giving up, they built it back up themselves. The Olympics were a very good show there, and it showed the world that Asian people can do it very well, like the rest of the world.”

From August 21 to September 6 the torch wended its way through Eurasia, first from Greece to Istanbul. After a day in Turkey, the flame hopped on a plane to Beirut, Lebanon, and then to Teheran, Iran. The course continued on to Lahore, Pakistan, New Delhi, India, Rangoon, Burma, Bangkok, Thailand, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Manila in the Philippines. What I learned was that the sacred flame traveled by plane from point to point – which in hindsight makes total sense but removes the romance of this lonely flame traversing thousands of kilometers by foot.

Picture of Sacred Flame readied for travel.
Picture of Sacred Flame readied for travel.

In the end, the Sacred Flame traveled a total over 16,000 kilometers, about 95% by air. Are spirit-infused flames eligible for mileage points? Did they offer the flame a cool welcome drink?

(All pictures in this post including the ones below are from the “The Games of the XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964: The Official Report of the Organizing Committee”)