The True and Fascinating Story of How Tokyo Officials Saved the Olympic Flame During 2020

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The True and Fascinating Story of How Tokyo Officials Saved the Olympic Flame During 2020
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One aspect of the 2020 Tokyo Games that has been completely disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic has been the Olympic flame and torch relay, a crucial precursor to the Olympic opening ceremony. Sadly, there have been so many delays to this hallmark Olympic event since the pandemic began, and diehard fans may be disheartened to know that much of its tradition has been lost in the process.

The Olympic flame and torch relay started back in March following a year-long delay, after the flame was first put on display for locals in Japan in early 2020 as a "beacon of hope" as the pandemic unfolded. Unfortunately, the flame would soon be removed from public view as event organizers behind the 2020 Games officially postponed the Olympics until this summer.

While it eventually began making its way via a relay across the many district-like prefectures of Japan, athletes carrying the Olympic flame never actually showcased their journey to Tokyo.

Photo credit: Pool
Photo credit: Pool

According to reports from the Associated Press, the most crucial stages of the Olympic relay were hidden from public view as a result of Tokyo officials' state of emergency order currently in place. The torch and all relayers were pulled from public streets in the last stage of the Olympic relay in Kyodo a few months after the relay began in the northeastern section of the island nation. It was all done in an effort to stem new cases of COVID-19.

Photo credit: Yuichi Yamazaki
Photo credit: Yuichi Yamazaki

Originally, plans for the Tokyo Games flame and torch relay called for upwards of 10,000 runners to make their way around Japan in just over 120 days. The traditional relay began in the Fukushima prefecture, an area that experienced a historic earthquake that triggered a tsunami and mass damage, in a nod to the locals' long road to recovery.

While the flame wasn't publicly carried through most of Tokyo's surrounding streets and neighborhoods, the BBC reports that locals and international fans alike could stream flame-lighting ceremonies online. Officials promised that the relay would conclude during the Olympic opening ceremony on Friday, July 23 at the National Stadium in Tokyo.

What happened to the Olympic flame during 2020?

While Olympic officials initially displayed the torch and flame publicly, they soon relocated it after it became apparent that the 2020 Games wouldn't actually take place in the same year. Initially, according to the Los Angeles Times, officials had to hide the flame from public view due to outbreaks of COVID-19 across the country and in an attempt to enforce social distancing.

Photo credit: Pool
Photo credit: Pool

Rather than extinguish the flame altogether and start the tradition of sourcing it from Greece in 2021, officials simply relocated the burning symbol of international camaraderie to the nearby Japan Olympic Museum in Tokyo. Visitors to the museum were able to view the flame up close for a few months as long as they were able to snag a reservation, per AP reports.

But if you expected to show up and see the Olympic cauldron aflame, you'd be surprised at what you'd find — officials ended up scaling the Olympic flame down into a special "Olympic lantern" while it was on public display earlier this year.

"We have a team of experts maintaining the flame in its special lantern in accordance with IOC guidelines," event officials shared online. "As with every Olympic flame, we also keep back-up flames, which were also lit from the original flame in Ancient Olympia."

Through the 2020 winter season, the flame remained in this lantern until it was time to kick off the Japanese relay in March of this year. The rest, as we know, didn't go smoothly as planned — but athletes, event organizers, and fans tuning into the opening ceremony will all watch as the Olympic cauldron is lit once more.

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