Philip Barker

In less than a fortnight, the Flame for Tokyo 2020 will be kindled in Ancient Olympia, the second time that an Olympic Torch Relay has set out for the Japanese capital.

Anna Korakaki, 25 metres pistol champion at Rio 2016, will be the first runner in a Relay deliberately scheduled to commemorate the ninth anniversary of the tsunami which struck Japan in 2011.

It will also remember those who perished when atomic bombs fell on Japan.

In 1964, Relay organisers were equally keen to emphasise the mission of peace. The athlete who lit the final Cauldron was even chosen because he had been born on the very day the atom bomb fell on Hiroshima.

The journey of the 1964 Flame had been a long time in the planning. When Tokyo had been awarded the 1940 Olympics, the Swedish geographer Sven Hedin had suggested an elaborate Relay. It never came to pass as the 1940 Olympics were cancelled because of war.

For 1964, choreographer Michio Ito had a similar idea to transport the flame on the Silk Road and commemorate an ancient trade route.

The Asahi Shimbun newspaper in Japan sent out a team to check on the practicalities of the route, but there came an immediate setback. The Beijing government made it clear they would not allow the flame on Chinese soil.

In the Japan Times, Katsundo Mizuno wrote: "Even with the cooperation of communist China, the Silk Road route would involve much difficulty in carrying the torch over mountains of over 5000m."

A second idea featured the Spice Route and had "political and geographical advantages."

High Priestess Aleka Katseli lights the Olympic Torch in Ancient Olympia ©Getty Images
High Priestess Aleka Katseli lights the Olympic Torch in Ancient Olympia ©Getty Images

German scholar and administrator Carl Diem visited Japan to offer advice. He had played a key role in the success of the first Olympic Torch Relay in 1936.

Eventually, organisers announced that the Flame was to be flown from Athens, with stopovers in many Asian capitals.

North Korean radio soon complained organisers had "deliberately left Pyongyang out from the course of the sacred torch relay.” They called for the Japanese to "Rectify such arbitrary wrongful view." [sic]

Meanwhile, Relay organiser Fumio Takashima began an inspection tour discussing plans with local organisers along the international route.

In Beirut, fire brigade officer Emile Nassar "plunged a torch into a bucket of water to test its flame, the flame torch burned on successfully."

Back home,organisers set about recruiting Torchbearers. "The official runners would be between 16 and 20 years of age."

Each was to be accompanied by two alternate runners and up to 20 accompanying runners. It was estimated that 100,000 took part in all.

They also set out the required profile for the lighter of the final Cauldron.

"A youngster symbolising the new Japan should be picked. He should be more than 1.70m in height and weigh around 65 kg. The runner should be a youth of good character."

Yoshinori Sakai, a first-year student in the education department of Waseda University "was found to meet all qualifications."

He had been born 55 kilometres north of Hiroshima on August 6 1945, the day the atom bomb fell.

"Happily I know nothing of war. I have grown up free from care in the atmosphere of freedom in peace loving Japan," Sakai said.

A 1964 first day cover produced in Greece ©International Olympic Academy
A 1964 first day cover produced in Greece ©International Olympic Academy

Mitsuyasu Ochiai, a third-year student at Meguro High School was picked as reserve.

In the meantime, the Flame was kindled in a ceremony at Ancient Olympia. The ceremony was choreographed for the first time by Maria Horss, a distinguished performer in the Greek theatre, and included a dance sequence which has become an established part of the ritual.

In another first, Thanos Kotsopoulos, a leading Greek actor, recited Light of Olympia by the Greek poet Takis Doxas. It has been performed at this ceremony ever since.

High Priestess Aleka Katseli kindled the Flame and was escorted through the archaeological ruins by 14 priestesses from the Lyceum Club of Greece.

King Constantine II, a member of the International Olympic Committee, received the flame and passed it to George Marcellos, a 110m hurdler who had competed at Rome 1960.

Some 400 runners carried the Flame in Greece as it headed through the north of the country towards Athens. When it reached the capital, it was taken to the Panathinaiko Stadium for the traditional handover.

Sprinter Ioannis Komitoudis arrived with the Torch and was greeted by the King who lit a special cauldron.

In a pleasant tribute to judo, which had been included on the Olympic programme for the first time, the Greek national squad also paraded at the handover ceremony.

At the airport, Hellenic Olympic Committee secretary Pyrros Lappas said farewell to Tokyo organising chief Daigoro Yasukawa, who carried the flame aboard an aircraft named "Spirit of Tokyo".

It flew first to Istanbul in Turkey and then on to the Lebanon.

In Beirut, it was welcomed by a fencing team with foils drawn.

Nine runners took the flame into the city where army corporal Elie Naasau lit a cauldron at the top of a diving tower.

In Iranian capital Tehran, National Olympic Committee President Prince Gholam Reza met the Flame. Teheran’s mayor at the time was Dr Ziaeddin Shademan, who had played basketball for Iran at the 1948 Olympics. A civic banquet was held in honour of the Torch Relay.

The Olympic flight continued to Pakistan and India, before reaching Rangoon in Burma - now Yangon in Myanmar. The first Torchbearer was U Zaw Weik, the first Burma-born Olympian. He had represented British India at the 1936 Berlin Games in weightlifting. 

Thirty-two runners ran with the Flame to the Aung San Stadium, where marathoner Myi Tung Naw, an Olympian in 1956 and 1960, lit a ceremonial cauldron.

There was also a request from Nepal’s Prince Basundhara for an unofficial stopover of the Flame, which would, he said "bring joy to the Nepalese people and also promote the spirit of sport in the country."

The Flame continued to Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur before heading for Manila.

As it returned towards continental Asia, its arrival in Hong Kong coincided with Typhoon Ruby. The official plane was damaged, delaying progress. A replacement plane also developed technical problems.

Yoshinori Sakai climbs the steps to the Cauldron ©Getty Images
Yoshinori Sakai climbs the steps to the Cauldron ©Getty Images

In the meantime, the cauldron in Hong Kong fetched 10,000 Hong Kong dollars (£625) in auction to raise funds in support of the typhoon victims.

The flight eventually took off for Taipei and then at last flew towards Okinawa. At the time, the territory was still under United States administration. Technically, the Japanese flag could not be flown without special dispensation.

Yet the Japan Times newspaper reported “Tens of thousands of Japanese flags blossomed everywhere and shouts of ‘Banzai’ echoed everywhere as the Olympic flame arrived."

The F lame finally landed at Kagoshima, which was officially Japanese soil; 30,000 were waiting as 18-year-old local high-school student Ritsuko Takahashi was the first Torchbearer.

The Relay now took four different routes to allow it to reach every prefecture in the time allowed. It would only be reunited once all portions had reached Tokyo.

In the Olympic city, newspapers described a moment ‘’Both ends of the torch relay met.”

High priestess Katseli, had been invited to Japan by a philanthropic Japanese businessman. She wore the traditional Greek chitone to greet the final Torchbearer Sakai, dressed in his university tracksuit. They stood together at the top of the stadium.

The press noted that "Sakai promised Ms. Katseli to fulfil his duty as the final torch bearer."

Sakai took part in a rehearsal, open to the public, in which he climbed the steps to the Cauldron and ignited the bowl. He had been coached by Teruji Kogake, an Olympic triple jumper from 1956.

"I was filled with the desire to do whatever I could to help him. I advised him on procedural details, how to receive the torch and how to conduct himself,” Kogake said.

On the morning of the ceremony, Sakai joined his coach and mentor for a meal of sekihan - festive red rice - before setting out for the stadium.

Runners brought the Flame from the Imperial Palace. The average age of the group was 17.

Sakai was waiting at the stadium.

"When I entered the stadium carrying the torch, I was under so much stress that I could not even take a look at the spectators in the stadium," he later said.  

"When I ran up the stairs and stood on top of it I could relax. I am glad I fulfilled my duties."

He had dreamed of attending the 2020 Games but passed away in 2014 at the age of 69.

Members of his family hope to be present for the opening in Tokyo this July.