Philip Barker ©ITG

The sun shone on Thursday (March 25) as Iwashimizu Azusa carried the Olympic Flame with her 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup winning team-mates at J-Village Soccer Training Centre, for the "Grand Start" of the 121 day journey to Tokyo.

It is a journey which seems certain to be different to any Torch Relay which has come before.

Never before have organisers had to discourage large crowds from congregating to watch the Flame pass.

Torch carriers had originally been encouraged to embrace, usually a signature move of a Relay, to express the motto "Hope Lights Our Way". But, in light of the coronavirus pandemic, runners were instead advised to maintain social distancing.

Even the escort runners wore masks as they ran.

To judge from the evidence of the first few days, most spectators heeded the official advice to wear face protection and applaud rather than cheer for the runners.

More than half a million had applied to be Torchbearers and 10,000 were chosen. All will hope they are able to take their turn over the coming months.

The number of runners pales in comparison to the 100,000 who took part when the Flame first journeyed to Tokyo in 1964.

Those Games were viewed as a symbolic rehabilitation for Japan after the Second World War.

The Tokyo 2020 Torch Relay has begun before this year's rearranged Olympic Games ©Getty Images
The Tokyo 2020 Torch Relay has begun before this year's rearranged Olympic Games ©Getty Images

Organisers very deliberately decided that official runners would be "between 16 and 20 years of age" in order to symbolise the new generation. Each bearer ran for one-and-a-half kilometres, accompanied by two alternate runners and up to 20 accompanying runners.

The Flame only arrived in Japan a month before the Games, so the Relay was split into four routes to enable as many as possible to see it pass.

At Kagoshima, 18-year-old high school student Ritsuko Takahashi was the first bearer. As she ran, it was estimated that some 30,000 were there to watch.

Such was the enthusiasm for anything and everything "Olympic", around 70,000 people packed the stadium in Tokyo for a rehearsal of the lighting of the final cauldron.

The identity of the final runner had been announced long before for symbolic reasons. University student Yoshinori Sakai had been born on the day the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima. "Happily, I know nothing of war," he said.

The domestic Relay has become an opportunity for the host nation to show off its identity.

When it was first staged for the 1936 Games in Berlin, the Flame only reached German soil the day before the Opening Ceremony. 

Hitler Youth and other Nazi organisations saluted its passing and, when it reached the Lustgarten in Berlin, Olympic flags were outnumbered by swastikas. A runner lit a ceremonial altar before the Flame continued to the stadium.

War forced Olympic cancellation in 1940 and 1944.

Before the 1948 London Games, there were some who doubted the wisdom of reviving a ritual which many associated with the tainted Games of 1936. Others described the idea of a Relay as an "antiquarian sham".

Nonetheless, the Relay did take place. HMS Bicester carried the Flame across the English Channel and docked in Dover less than 24 hours before the Games were to open. Runners carried the Flame overnight to complete a journey of some 122 kilometres to the opening at Wembley Stadium.

Veteran runner H J Bignall, right, hands the Olympic Torch to Fred Prevett at Redhill during the 1948 Relay from Dover to London ©Getty Images
Veteran runner H J Bignall, right, hands the Olympic Torch to Fred Prevett at Redhill during the 1948 Relay from Dover to London ©Getty Images

Whatever the hour, there was an enthusiastic welcome. Some, including Windsor Mayor Fred Fuzzens, seemed to be less than impressed by the mystique, however. He lit his cigarette from a burning Torch.

It was not until Helsinki 1952 that the Flame spent more significant time in the host nation.

It also travelled by air for the first time, carried in a miner's safety lamp donated by the Saar Olympic Committee.

What followed was an overland journey through Denmark and Sweden, before the Flame reached the Finnish border at Tornio.

Ville Pörhölä, Finland's shot put gold medallist at the 1920 Games in Antwerp, was the first of 1,680 people to carry the Flame in the host nation. None of the runners were allowed to keep their Torches, as only 22 had been made. All were needed for the journey to continue.

The official report does show pictures of women taking part but whether they did so officially is not clear. All of the previous bearers had been men.

Many more women were involved in 1956, however. Stockholm staged the equestrian events after quarantine regulations made it impossible for horses to travel to Melbourne.

The equestrian community carried a Flame across Sweden and many of the riders were women.

On the final day, Wera Collett, escorted by other female riders, carried the Flame through the Swedish capital to the stadium gate.

The cauldron was lit in the centre of the stadium by dressage rider Hans Wikne. 

Additional Torches were taken to the stadium towers by Henry Erikson, the 1500m gold medallist from London 1948, and Karin Lindberg, who won team gold in the portable apparatus gymastics event in Helsinki.

Another Relay to Melbourne was organised later that year, but then the regulations stipulated that there should be "no professionals and no women".

This did not stop teenager Coral Taylor defiantly running alongside the men at Bluewater Creek near Townsville.

A Relay runner passes the Olympic Flame to a cyclist on the road between Aalborg and Randers in Jutland, before the Helsinki 1952 Games ©Getty Images
A Relay runner passes the Olympic Flame to a cyclist on the road between Aalborg and Randers in Jutland, before the Helsinki 1952 Games ©Getty Images

Forty-six years later, she became an official bearer in the Sydney 200 Torch Relay which made diversity and inclusion a priority.

Runners had visited the neighbouring countries of Oceania by the time it began its 100 day journey around Australia at Uluru.

Eight members of the Uluru family, the traditional guardians of the land, received the Flame.

"We are all very happy the firestick has come to my father's place and we welcome you to our country," Kunmanara Uluru said.

The first official bearer was 1996 hockey gold medallist Nova Peris, who was destined to compete in athletics at the Sydney Games.

At Government House, Michael Quall, the Australian Capital Territory's young citizen of the year, received his Torch from Nelson Mandela in an unforgettable moment.

The Relay crossed the outback with the Royal Flying Doctor Service and was also taken to the Great Barrier Reef by marine biologist Wendy Craig Duncan, who used an adapted Torch to allow a flame to "burn" underwater.

"A lot of work has gone into ensuring the flame is environmentally friendly, this is such a magnificent reef," she said.

It was not the first the Torch which had been close to the ocean. Water skiers carried it at Acapulco in Mexico in 1968 and swimmers brought it ashore at Veracruz. This is planned to be echoed in May when the Tokyo 2020 Relay visits Hiroshima. Swimming Torchbearers will demonstrate an ancient Japanese technique known as "Nihon eihō".

The Torch is now carried by people from all parts of society but this was not always the case.

For Moscow 1980, the last time when the Torch travelled exclusively overland, organisers ruled that "only the most deserving people" would take part.

"Those who have achieved high success in sport, those who achieved a high place, either through work or public activity," it was ruled. "Champions of all around physical fitness contests and trade union and Komsomol (Young Communist League) cross country races."

Australian Olympian Nova Peris with the Sydney 2000 Torch at Uluru ©Getty Images
Australian Olympian Nova Peris with the Sydney 2000 Torch at Uluru ©Getty Images

It took 17 days for the Relay to reach the Soviet border and a further fortnight to arrive in Moscow.

Before the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, Hollywood film Producer David Wolper proposed allowing sponsors to pay for a place in the Relay. The money raised would be used to fund youth sport, he suggested, but the concept angered Mayor of Olympia Spyros Fotinos.

There was a bitter dispute before the Flame was formally handed over at Ancient Olympia and, instead of the traditional journey around Greece, it flew directly to New York.

The Relay across America lasted 82 days and was the longest yet seen. The list of runners resembled a who's who of American sport. Bearers included Ralph Hill, the 5,000m silver medallist at the first Los Angeles Games in 1932, and Wilma Rudolph, a triple sprint gold medallist in Rome in 1960.

In Louisville, Kentucky, the Flame was carried by the man who won light heavyweight boxing gold in Rome - none other than Muhammad Ali. The ring great later lit the Olympic cauldron before Atlanta 1996.

"If you told me 20 years ago I'd still be participating in the Olympics, I'd have said you were crazy," Ali said.

In Chicago, Walter Payton, the record breaking running back for the Chicago Bears NFL team, admitted that "you can score as many touchdowns as you like and this will still be special, it only happens once". The 125,000 spectators agreed.

There was also a special greeting for the Flame on the grid of the Indianapolis 500, and it was received at the White House by President Ronald Reagan. 

The bearer in Washington D.C was Kurt Thomas, a gymnast who was denied his Olympic chance by the US-led boycott of Moscow 1980.

Peter Ueberroth, the Los Angeles Organising Committee President, highlighted the Relay in his Opening Ceremony address.

Muhammad Ali lit the cauldron at Atlanta 1996 and participated in the Los Angeles 1984 Relay  ©Getty Images
Muhammad Ali lit the cauldron at Atlanta 1996 and participated in the Los Angeles 1984 Relay ©Getty Images

"It exceeded our fondest dreams," he said. "Millions and millions of our fellow Americans stood along the roadsides, cheering the runners and thereby becoming part of the Olympic Movement."

This success story was carefully noted by the 1988 host cities. For the Winter Olympics in Calgary, a Relay of 18,000 kilometres lasted 88 days.

In South Korea later that year there was similar enthusiasm. When the Seoul 1988 Flame arrived at Jeju Airport, 81 year-old calligrapher Hyon Chung-hwa lit the first Torch from a mobile cauldron while watched by a huge crowd.

Sixth grade schoolboy Kim Sang-min and fifth grade schoolgirl Lee Jae-hui jointly carried the Torch on the initial leg. Aged 10 and 11 respectively, and technically too young to apply to carry the Flame, they symbolised a new Korea.

The country's Olympic heritage was represented when the Torch was carried into the stadium by Sohn Kee-chung, the marathon gold medallist at the Berlin 1936 Games. At that time his homeland was under Japanese occupation but, since independence, he was seen as being emblematic of the country.

By the time the Flame returned to South Korea for the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics, it wasn't even necessary to be human. Hubo the robot carried the Torch in Daejeon.

There was no Flame when the first Games of the modern era took place in Athens in 1896, 125 years ago this week. But when the Olympics "came home", Greek football success at Euro 2004 had already given the host nation a fillip.

Coach Otto Rehhagel took the Athens 2004 Flame across the new Rio-Antirio bridge, with the Relay preceded by an extensive international journey which even had its own Torch song - Pass the Flame, Unite the World.

In 2008, the Chinese sought to emulate this before the Games in Beijing.

The ascent of Mount Everest with the Flame by five climbers was heralded by organisers as one of the highlights of the Torch Relay.

Chinese climbers took the Olympic Flame to the top of Mount Everest ©Getty Images
Chinese climbers took the Olympic Flame to the top of Mount Everest ©Getty Images

"We have realised a promise to the world and a dream of all the Chinese people," base camp commander Li Zhixin said.

The ascent, however, was made against a backdrop of protest against Chinese policy in Tibet. Chinese authorities had closed the mountain route to all other climbers.

Tenzin Dorjeee, the deputy director of Students for a Free Tibet, told Reuters: "Beijing's conquest of Everest is a political move meant to reassert China's control of Tibet."

The Torch was blasted into space before the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi where it was carried, unlit of course, on a space walk by Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazansky at the International Space Station.

Eighteen years before, astronaut Loren Shriver took a lighted Torch to launch pad 39A at Cape Canaveral as part of the Relay to the 1996 centennial Games in Atlanta.

The question of "celebrity" runners has caused some soul searching. Japanese media has reported that some famous runners have decided not to take part this year due to concerns over COVID-19.

At the Torch Relay for Pyeongchang 2018, however, you could scarcely move for K-Pop stars.

Earlier in 2012, not all had been happy when organisers invited celebrity chefs such as Heston Blumenthal and musicians including, who had just become a coach on reality television programme The Voice

Irish singers John and Edward Grimes, known collectively as Jedward, carried the Torch in Dublin.

The Sydney 2000 Torch plunged into the ocean at the Great Barrier Reef ©Getty Images
The Sydney 2000 Torch plunged into the ocean at the Great Barrier Reef ©Getty Images

The brothers had taken part in the Eurovision Song Contest and set an example which was followed by Russia, who included one of their contestants in 2014. Galina Koneva, one of the country's famous Buranovskiye Babushki "singing grandmas", was a bearer before the Winter Games in Sochi.

Russia's 2008 Eurovision winner Dima Bilan also passed the Flame to another singer, Polina Gagarina, as part of the Rio 2016 Torch Relay.

There could be no criticism of Vanderlei de Lima, the former marathon runner who began Rio's domestic Relay and ultimately also lit the final cauldron. 

He was impeded on the 2004 marathon course by an intruder, an incident which arguably deprived him of gold.

Since 1936, the Torch has journeyed to the top of the world, plunged to the depths of the oceans and even blasted into outer space. But, after last year, many will feel that simply getting it to Tokyo will be the greatest achievement.

As the Flame left Fukushima on the first day, Tokyo 2020 chief executive Toshirō Mutō said: "As long as the same operation can be conducted as today, we will have no problems even with celebrity runners. 

"I feel truly happy that time has started to move."