Olympics-Scandal-hit Tokyo looks to final torchbearer to mend battered image

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By Tim Kelly, Sam Nussey and Sudipto Ganguly

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. [nL8N2OY17M]

The world number two's first Olympic match in Tokyo has been pushed back https://www.reuters.com/lifestyle/sports/tennis-osakas-opening-match-moved-sunday-organisers-request-itf-2021-07-23 a day to Sunday following a request from Tokyo 2020 organisers, the International Tennis Federation told Reuters.

Osaka, who is returning after a two-month mental health break, was scheduled to kick off proceedings at the Ariake Tennis Park's main showcourt.

Tokyo 2020 did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

SHOW STOPPERS

The Games have courted controversy throughout the buildup, and on Thursday, the opening ceremony director was fired https://www.reuters.com/lifestyle/sports/japan-former-pm-abe-will-not-attend-games-opening-ceremony-nhk-2021-07-22 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.

And former Tokyo 2020 chief Yoshiro Mori was forced to quit early this year after he made sexist comments about women talking too much.

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 recent poll https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14398398.

Tokyo 2020 organisers said three more athletes had tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the total to 11 since July 2. All Olympic related cases, including officials and media, rose by 19 to 106, the biggest one-day gain yet.

"I have no fear because everybody is tested every day and we all do our own things," Kellie Harrington, a boxer and Team Ireland flag bearer said at a press conference. "If you start worrying about that, you may as well pack your bags and go home like, you’ve got to focus on the competition."

Tokyo on Friday announced 1,359 new COVID-19 cases, 88 more than the same day last week, the 34th straight week on week increase. Japan's government declared the city's fourth state of emergency this month in a bid to slow infections.

TORCHBEARER MATERIAL

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 role model 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 Angeles 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

Three-time Olympic wrestling gold medallist who also won 13 straight world championships, she is admired for her dedication to a sport she began aged three with a strict training schedule that was overseen by her father, a one-time national champion. She is known 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.

SYMBOL OF RECOVERY

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.

As the hours ticked down to the event which starts at 8pm Tokyo time (1100 GMT), Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Emperor Naruhito met with a series of dignitaries who will attend the ceremony, including U.S. first lady Jill Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron.

After days of blue skies and fierce heat, the Japan Air Self-Defense Force's Blue Impulse aerobatics squadron drew the Olympic rings https://www.reuters.com/video/watch/watch-japans-air-force-paint-the-sky-ove-id733205068 in white smoke over central Tokyo amid scattered clouds. [nL4N2OX0UZ]

Close to the stadium, surrounded by metal fences and other barriers, some Japanese gathered in scorching heat to snap pictures.

"I was looking forward to the Olympics. I even had tickets," said 29-year-old Ryusuke Kawano. "But there’s this coronavirus situation, so half of me wants to see (the matches), and the other half of me thinks there’s nothing I can do about it."

(Reporting by Tim Kelly and Sam Nussey; additional reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka, Joseph Campbell and Martin Pollard; Editing by Stephen Coates, Lincoln Feast and Toby Davis.)

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