July 23, 2021
By Tim Kelly
TOKYO (Reuters) – Battered by scandal on the eve of the opening ceremony, Tokyo 2020 organisers have the chance to patch up the Games’ image when they reveal today who will carry the Olympic flame for the final few steps to light the stadium’s cauldron.
The identity of the final torchbearer is one of the Games’ most closely held secrets yet speculation has swirled for months around well-known athletes including Naomi Osaka https://jp.reuters.com/article/uk-tennis-frenchopen-factbox/factbox-japans-naomi-osaka-who-withdrew-from-the-french-open-on-monday-idINKCN2DC1VR, the four time Grand Slam tennis champion, whose superstar status could also draw attention away from the string of gaffes https://www.reuters.com/lifestyle/sports/tokyo-2020-plagued-by-embarrassing-scandals-gaffes-2021-07-22 by organisers in the build-up to the Games and soften public resentment over the hosting of the Games during the pandemic.
The event’s director was fired https://www.reuters.com/lifestyle/sports/japan-former-pm-abe-will-not-attend-games-opening-ceremony-nhk-2021-07-22 on the eve of the opening ceremony after comments he made about the Holocaust in a 1990s comedy sketch resurfaced and sparked a public outcry.
Days earlier, the ceremony’s composer stepped down after comments he made in interviews in the 1990s about abusing and bullying classmates were circulated on social media.
Former Tokyo 2020 chief Yoshiro Mori was forced to quit early this year after he made sexist comments about women talking too much.
Despite the outrage he stirred, the former prime minister may return as an honorary advisor, to recognize his role in helping Japan host the Games, the Asahi newspaper reported on Friday. Japan’s government is considering the proposal, but also faces opposition to a decision that could generate criticism overseas, the paper said.
Japan has also come under fire for holding the Olympics in the midst of the pandemic. Two thirds of people said they doubted that Japan could host a safe Games, with more than half saying they opposed the Olympics going ahead, according to a poll https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14398398 published by the Asahi.
Naomi Osaka, 23
With an Haitian father and Japanese mother, Osaka represents a more modern and diverse Japan and is a voice supporting racial and gender equality in a ceremony where many countries are promoting athletes with a message of diversity. Named by Time magazine as one of the most influential people in the world for the past two years, she is Japan’s most recognizable athlete.
Ichiro Suzuki, 47
An icon of Japanese baseball, Suzuki won fame both in Japan and the United States as a player of the Seattle Mariners and New York Yankees. His move to the United States garnered criticism at home, but he won over skeptics with a career that saw him in 2016 reach 3,000 hits, a feat only a handful of players have achieved. Known for his focus and hard work he is often held up as a symbol for children to aspire to.
Shohei Ohtani, 27
The baseball all rounder is the latest Japanese player to score big in the United States after joining the Los Angelese Angels in 2018. Earning the nickname Shotime, the left-hand batter and right-handed pitcher is known for his good looks and cool demeanor.
Tadahiro Nomura, 46
The judo champion is son of an Olympic gold medalist, who began learning the Japanese martial art when he was a child. Nomura picked up his first Olympic gold medal in Atlanta in 1996, followed by his second in 2000 and a third four years later to become the first person to take three consecutive judo golds.
Kosuke Kitajima, 38
The two-time breaststroke gold medalist and former world record holder retired in 2016, but remains a popular figure in Japan, appearing on television as a commentator and celebrity. He is also the general manager of the Tokyo Frogs, a professional swim team that competes around the world and is active in promoting swimming lessons for children.
Saori Yoshida, 38
Olympic wrestling champion who also won 13 straight world championships, she is admired for dedication to a sport she began aged 3 with a strict training schedule that was overseen by her father, a one-time national champion. She is know for her lobbying to keep wrestling as an event in the 2020 Games after the International Olympic Committee said it was considering dropping the sport.
Yet some commentators have called for a non-celebrity who would represent the country’s recovery from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that caused the Fukushima nuclear disaster, devastated Japan’s northeast coastline and killed nearly 20,000 people.
Japan made a similar choice in 1964 – the last time Tokyo hosted the Games – when Yoshinori Sakai, a 19-year-old college athlete born in Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, the day of the U.S. atomic bombing, brought the flame into the stadium.
Whoever carries the torch on Friday, the new stadium, built on the same site as the one used for the 1964 Games, will be nearly empty, with only around 950 people, mostly officials and journalists, watching in the stands.
Yet the torchbearer’s face will likely be seen by hundreds of millions of people watching around the world.
(Reporting by Tim Kelly; additional reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Toby Davis and Stephen Coates)