, ISUMI, Japan (Reuters) - Whenever Teruo Adegawa arrives at Taito Beach, other surfers recognize him right away. Dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts, the 78-year-old steps out of his car, leaving his walking stick by the passenger seat.
Taichi Horimoto, 60, still wet from surfing, comes over.
He tells Adegawa, or "Ted san" to everyone here, how he heard about the Olympic torch relay getting canceled – the latest in a long line of headaches for the Games in a year still haunted by the pandemic.
"It's a real shame," Horimoto says. "You were training so hard."
"Yeah, it's so frustrating," says Adegawa, who had been chosen to be a torchbearer.
Adegawa, renowned in Japan as one of the nation's surfing pioneers, had a debilitating stroke 18 years ago. Surfing is making its debut as a sport in the Summer Games this year, and Adegawa had spent the past year slowly running the length of the beach every morning so he could take part in the Olympic relay along this stretch of coastline southeast of Tokyo – which he helped build into a surfing destination.
He tells Horimoto he wanted the kids in the area to see the relay, maybe inspire some of them to take up surfing. He didn't expect organizers to cancel the whole relay, thinking it was fine to have the event outside with spectators spaced out along the route, even with COVID-19 still a risk.
"And I'd run along the sea, near the waves," he says.
Instead, the relay was canceled and Adegawa attended a muted ceremony on a makeshift stage far from his town at the beginning of July. Under a leaden sky in front of a sparse crowd of other torch bearers, Adegawa was handed the Olympic flame for just over a minute before he was rushed off stage.
Ichinomiya, just down the road from Isumi, is about to host the Games' inaugural surfing competition. But there are few signs of the event. The venue itself is obscured behind a mile-long steel wall, barred by a white gate with uniformed guards.
With just a few days to go until the opening ceremony, Japan is trudging toward an unprecedented Olympic Games, held under the shadow of a global pandemic.
Far from the Olympic ideal of bringing people together, the run-up to the Games has been marked by events hidden from public view. Now, spectators are barred from most Olympic events, including the surfing competition.
The Japanese public, the majority of whom have long opposed hosting the Games during a pandemic, now faces a truly surreal prospect: cheering for the world's largest sporting event from home while the largely unvaccinated country remains under virus restrictions that prohibit them from gathering, drinking or traveling.
In the decade since Japan was selected to host the 2020 Olympics, the event has been dogged by a near-constant churn of scandal: first corruption allegations, then budget overruns, an unprecedented one-year delay because of the pandemic and, more recently, an exit of the country's top Games official over sexist remarks. Yoshiro Mori, the former head of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee, retracted and apologized for his remarks in February and quit his post.
Even now, there is daily speculation about how the event could spread infections. Organizers point out that they've published guidelines and issued rulebooks that they say will prevent infections.
Shortly after meeting with Japan's prime minister this month, Thomas Bach, the head of the International Olympic Committee, assured reporters there was "zero" risk of Olympic participants infecting Japanese residents with the coronavirus during the Games.
Once so excited for the celebration, Adegawa and his sleepy surf town capture both the yearning and disappointment that characterize this year's Games.
Adegawa waves in the direction of the walls that block a stretch of the beach. "Hey, can anyone get behind those?" he asks Horimoto. He'd already tried once to get inside but was politely turned away.
"I dunno," Horimoto says. Honestly, he's not all that interested in the Olympics.
"But the Olympics are never, ever going to happen here again, right?" Adegawa interrupts. "I just really want to see it with my own eyes."
A SURFER IS BORN, FAR FROM HOME
Born to an entrepreneurial family in Tokyo that designed and sold neckties for salarymen, Adegawa didn't learn to surf until 1964, in his early 20s. Tokyo was hosting its last Olympic Games that year, and the whole world was paying attention, Adegawa says.
Laying out dozens of old photographs on his living room coffee table, Adegawa recalls how he traveled to California as a college junior with almost no money and only vague ideas of what the U.S. would be like.
In Santa Monica, he saw young men in colorful shorts carrying surfboards instead of briefcases, wearing tie-dyed shirts instead of suits. He was hooked even before he caught his first wave.
In a photo taken the same year, a youthful Adegawa holds a surfboard under his arm in Malibu, his face tanned and relaxed as he looks straight at the camera. A picture taken a few years later shows him beaming again, holding a longboard outside with a painted sign reading "TED SURF SHOP," his own store in Tokyo.
"We were making boards and shipping them like crazy all over Japan and we didn't even have time to sleep," he says. When they ran out of room in their temporary factory, Adegawa and his friends began painting surfboards in a nearby park until neighbors complained of fumes.
In 1970, Adegawa moved to Isumi after he saw three American soldiers surfing what looked like perfect swells near a local fishing port. The beach at Taito was a shallow curve of black and heavy sand, but the waves came in steady, rarely breaking until they reached shore.
In the decades since, Adegawa has sponsored Japan's first surf team, organized its inaugural competition and introduced international surfers to the country's unique surf culture. Now he's known as one of the godfathers of modern Japanese surf culture.
"If we hadn't come here and surfed, bringing all our friends from all around the world, this area wouldn't be what it is now," he says proudly.
After running his surf company for two decades, Adegawa retired early in the 1990s after his factory and store burned down in a fire, later handing over the TED brand to his son, Jun.
He says he felt "blessed" when he found out the Olympics surfing contest would be held so close to home.
Anticipating guests from all around the world, Adegawa and his wife, Yuriko, opened a tiny surf museum on Isumi's main road, decorating the walls with framed photos of surfers competing at nearby beaches.
The museum didn't attract many guests even before the pandemic. With all spectators banned for the surfing competition here, they're unlikely to see visitors anytime soon.
"There just doesn't seem to be a lot of interest," Yuriko Adegawa says, leaning back on a wicker chair in the family home. "I think people are happy to forget about the past," Adegawa says.
Recently, Olympic organizers called Adegawa to borrow two of his vintage surfboards to display at the venue. Adegawa had secretly hoped he might get a ticket in exchange, but now there's little chance of attending the event.
"I just hope there'll be decent waves," he says.
WORRIED ABOUT THE WAVES
The question of whether there will be competition-worthy waves at Tsurigasaki, a surfing spot locals call Shidashita, where the Olympic event will take place, is something that is constantly on Kiyohisa Uzawa's mind.
Uzawa, 45, a city councilman in Ichinomiya, was heavily involved in the city's bid to host the surfing contest.
At his surf shop across the road from the Olympic venue, Uzawa clicks through a Yahoo weather map to look at the path of an oncoming typhoon. The grainy map shows the storm approaching the Pacific coast, brushing up against Tsurigasaki before barreling northward. Uzawa and other local surfers were hoping the storm would wash sand from the beach into the ocean, creating a sandbar that would make for better breaks. The storm helped move some of the sand into the ocean, but Uzawa says it still might not be enough.
"Of course we're worried. During the bid we kept saying, the waves are perfect, they're massive, come see it," he says. "If it turns out it's s***, it's a problem, right?"
Uzawa, who was a competitive surfer before he entered local politics, has seen firsthand how much the Olympics has contributed to the area. Farmers saw their coastal real estate rise in value after the town was picked to host the Olympics event, and the city now sees surfing as key to revitalizing its economy. All along the town's main road "for sale" signs poke out of overgrown weeds in empty lots.
But even ardent supporters like Uzawa feel exasperated over the shifting sands of the Games.
Nearly a thousand local children were initially invited to the surfing contest, but that plan has now been scrapped because of a rise in infections.
It's a particular shame for Ichinomiya, a town of 12,000 residents, who have an Olympian among them for the first time.
Hiroto Ohara, who was born and raised in Ichinomiya, grew up watching professional surfers compete on his hometown beach. Ever since he started surfing at 8, he's dreamed of competing there. This year he will represent Japan in the Olympic surfing event; his posters are plastered all over the city's restaurants and surf shops.
"If there's even the slightest possibility, I'd really like to have the kids watch me live," Ohara, 24, says. "This is probably never going to happen again in my lifetime."
SLOW PACE OF VACCINATIONS
In June, a few weeks before his torch ceremony, Adegawa drives to his second vaccination appointment. Inside a local cultural center, rows of gray- and white-haired residents sit on foldable chairs, waiting for their turn for the jab.
Japan is aiming to have all of its elderly vaccinated by the end of July, but some municipalities, including Adegawa's town, are expected to miss that deadline. Around 20% of Japan's population is fully vaccinated, far lower than many other developed economies, a fact that has made the public even more wary about the Games.
Adegawa, dressed in a red and pink Hawaiian shirt and a mask emblazoned with surfboards, stands out in the sea of gray at the vaccination site.
"Look at all these old people!" Adegawa says as he lowers himself on a plush chair in the corridor. When he's reminded that he, in fact, is also old, he starts laughing.
"With surfers, it's easy to forget," he says. "You're forever talking like kids – nothing ever changes."
They call Adegawa's number. He stands up slowly from the low chair and waves off a woman who asks if he needs his cane.
Adegawa's town, Isumi, had remained somewhat detached from the Olympics because it's not formally hosting the surfing event. But now organizers are asking city officials to oversee coronavirus tests and other measures for athlete delegations that will be staying in Isumi during the contest.
Masami Senzui, an Olympics official in the city, has already lost one member of his six-person team to the city's vaccination drive. Facing increasing requests from Olympics organizers to take on added responsibilities to monitor foreign athletes, the city is pushing back, telling officials it doesn't have enough staff to spare.
"It's now become an event that no one expects much from," he says. "But it would also be quite sad if we simply host the Olympics because we had to."
In an emailed statement to Reuters, the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee said it had been working closely with local municipalities and stakeholders so that they can host a "safe and secure" event. Organizers didn't respond in detail to Reuters' emailed questions.
EXASPERATION AT HOTEL HOSTING ATHLETES
At Kujukuri Villa Sotobo, a hotel where Olympic surfers will stay during the competition, jazz covers of songs from Disney films fill an empty lobby. Last year's Christmas tree sits in the corner, its blue LED lights flickering on and off monotonously.
"I'm not sure if it's going to be much of an advertisement for future guests that we had Olympic athletes stay when everyone is worried about the coronavirus," says Harue Sugimoto, a general manager of the hotel.
Sugimoto didn't hear from Olympic organizers for almost two years after she signed a contract with them to take in athletes. She had assumed that the Games would be canceled again this year.
But at the end of May, Sugimoto received an urgent request from the French Olympic delegation asking the hotel to prepare daily meals for their athletes because they were "no longer able to eat out."
The decision echoed official guidance from Olympic organizers, who stipulate in their playbook that athletes shouldn't visit restaurants and when possible dine alone. In an email, France's national Olympic committee told Reuters the hotel was arranged by the organizing committee and that its delegation wouldn't come into contact with the public.
Since then, there have been many other late-night emails from organizers, requesting and demanding things both big and small. In late June, the organizing committee sent a 10-page document of new COVID-19 instructions, asking the hotel to send back a signed agreement within three days. She still hasn't heard how many athletes will end up staying at her hotel.
"I always thought the Olympics was this grand big thing – but once we've gotten going, I've realized it's all nonsense. The people at the top say, please come and feel secure, but nothing has been decided," she says, her carefully coiffed hair bobbing slightly.
"I usually have tough nerves, but sometimes I wonder if I'm getting depressed," she adds. There are mornings Sugimoto fantasizes about not showing up to work.
Folding her hands, she sighs again.
"I want the athletes to have a good competition, but I realized that the organizing committee is unreliable, that I just can't count on them."
"SURFING IS INCREDIBLY HEALING"
Down at Taito Beach, Adegawa carefully chooses his steps to avoid the cracks in the path and points out a concrete wheelchair ramp he convinced the city to build at the beach. After his stroke, Adegawa's doctors warned him he might not walk again. Surfing in cold waters, they said, was entirely out of the question.
To prove them wrong, he forced himself to walk to his favorite beach every day for an entire year and pushed himself to get back into the water. Eventually he returned to surfing, but with the pandemic closing beaches, he's stopped almost completely in the past year.
"Surfing is incredibly healing," he says as a line of surfers bob in the water before him, their eyes fixed to the horizon. He remembers seeing military veterans missing limbs surfing in Hawaii and how their faces lit up when they caught a wave. After his stroke Adegawa set up a nonprofit that promotes adaptive surfing, which makes the sport accessible to people with disabilities.
Occasionally he worries that surfing's inclusion into the Olympics will make the sport even more competitive. Recently, he's noticed eager parents scolding their crying kids for not catching a particular wave. They stand on the beach and religiously record their children with their phones, showing them later so they can learn to improve.
"That's not what it's all about," Adegawa says, going quiet.
It begins to rain. Through the heavy, humid air, large buildings that make up the Olympics surfing venue are visible in the distance.
Just then, a gray line rolls in, white spray coming off the crest of the wave like fire sparks. In a graceful swoop, a man catches it, lightly hopping on top of the board.
Adegawa smiles and watches him float all the way to shore.
(Reporting by Mari Saito and Sakura Murakami; editing by Kari Howard)