Though the Olympic torch weighs a little more than 2 1/2 pounds, and runners have to carry it for only about 200 meters — roughly the length of two football fields — it’s still hard not to feel the weight of history when you take part in an international sporting event that goes back centuries. Throw in the COVID-19 pandemic and the world’s desire to return to some semblance of normalcy, and this year’s Olympic torch relay took on extra emotional heft.
It also took a while to get there. The Olympic flame began its journey from Greece to Tokyo in March 2020 on a Japan Airlines Boeing 787, powered by GEnx-1B jet engines. When the pandemic forced the postponement of the games for a year, the flame was put on display in the Tokyo Olympic Museum. This March, the torch relay officially commenced. A small army of torchbearers carried the flame through all of Japan’s 47 prefectures, ultimately arriving in Tokyo in late July, where the Olympic cauldron was lit at the Opening Ceremony. The cauldron stays lit through the entire competition.
Clearly, torchbearers serve as an important link in the flame supply chain. As a corporate sponsor of the games, GE was allotted a number of torch-bearing slots. But that didn’t mean just anybody could hoist the flame; employees had to apply for the honor. It turns out that GE Aviation — which received four slots allocated by lottery — was well represented. Here are three Aviation team members based in Japan who helped carry the torch on its circuitous route to Tokyo.
Asako Ogasawara, contract specialist with GE Aviation Distribution:
It wasn’t the run that got Ogasawara excited; it was the tradition. She recalled seeing a GE employee take part in the torch relay during the Rio Olympics in 2016. “So I applied for a slot and submitted an essay on why I wanted to become a torchbearer,” she says. “I was so pleased and honored when I was chosen, I did a victory pose in my mind.” Ogasawara ran her stretch of the relay in Iwate Prefecture in the north of Japan’s main island, near her father’s hometown. Even with social distancing precautions and face masks, people came out to cheer her on. And by coincidence, she handed off the torch to a man who worked for GE Healthcare. “I was excited that the Olympics decided to come to Tokyo while I was alive,” Ogasawara says. “Becoming a torchbearer was a special event in my life.”
Jun Ushio, regional sales director for GE Aviation:
“I felt like a rock star with fans waving at me from the sidewalk!” recalls Jun Ushio. “It was something that I have never experienced.” Ushio initially had hoped to secure a torch relay slot for his 11-year-old son. When he found out his son was too young to qualify, he “decided to take over his dream to run as a torchbearer and was fortunate to be nominated.” Although he took part in a marathon a few years ago, Ushio says he’s “not really a runner.” Nevertheless, he saw this as a “once-in-a-lifetime chance to be involved in the Olympics held in your own country!” His route took him to Kochi Prefecture in southern Japan. As for the torch, he found it relatively easy to handle. “It’s 1.2 kilograms, 71 centimeters long,” Ushio says. “Running with it for 200 meters was not so bad.”
Hiromi Okawa, commercial field service engineer in GE Aviation’s customer and product support operation:
“I’m not an athlete,” Hiromi Okawa says, so she didn’t initially think she was eligible to carry the Olympic torch. “I had thought only famous people, athletes and someone with influence in various fields could be torchbearers.” When she found out it was open to anyone, she says, “I thought: I want to try if I have a chance.” She got her chance in the city of Matsumoto in Nagano Prefecture, a mountainous region west of Tokyo where the Winter Olympics were held in 1998. Okawa says she was a bit nervous, but once she started running, she found the atmosphere festive. “Many people were smiling, watching the flame I held and waving their hands,” she says. “I was able to enjoy it and I felt that the Olympic flame cheered up the people.” Her run may have only lasted for three minutes, but she smiled the whole way. “The concept for the Tokyo Olympics torch relay is ‘Hope Lights Our Way,’” she adds. “I felt like the Olympic flame is running to connect hope everywhere, in Japan and across the world.”