Olympics torch relay starts in Fukushima as North Korea launches missiles

Olympics torch relay starts in Fukushima as North Korea launches missiles

About 10,000 runners will carry the torch across Japan's 47 prefectures and far-flung islands

The Olympic torch relay set off from Fukushima on Thursday, beginning a four-month countdown to the Summer Games in Tokyo, delayed from 2020 and the first-ever organised during a global pandemic.

Casting a pall over celebrations, North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles before the relay began.

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About 10,000 runners will carry the torch across Japan's 47 prefectures and far-flung islands, starting from the site of the 2011 quake and tsunami that killed about 20,000 people and sent tens of thousands fleeing radioactive plumes.

"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 said at the opening ceremony, which was closed to spectators.

"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," Hashimoto said.

After the North Korean missile launch, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga assured reporters the national government was cooperating with Tokyo and the International Olympic Committee to host a secure Games.

The majority of the public is against the Olympics being held as scheduled, polls show.

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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.

The starting ceremony was held at J-Village in Fukushima, a sports complex converted for several years into a staging ground for workers decommissioning the crippled nuclear power plant.

"For the torch relay viewing, please ensure you are wearing a mask, keep a proper distance, don`t stand close to each other and support with things like clapping, instead of using a loud voice," an announcer at the site said.

The brief and solemn ceremony - originally planned for thousands of fans as a celebration of Japan`s recovery - was closed to the public.

It featured several low-key events, including a drum concert and dance performances by a group of residents from Fukushima, followed by a children`s choir.

Members of the Japanese national women`s soccer team used the Olympic flame, flown in from Greece last year, to light the torch.

The runners, some wearing masks and white uniforms decorated with red ran out of J-Village 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.

Television helicopters followed the run and the number of roadside spectators, waving Olympic flags, increased as the day went on. But they were masked and kept apart.

Organisers have said that the relay will skip areas that are too crowded, or pause until people disperse.

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"Fukushima`s recovery is going steadily," Fukushima governor Masao Uchibori said at the launch ceremony.

The torch will travel through some of the worst-hit areas first.

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