FUKUSHIMA (Japan) – Japan’s women’s softball team got the Tokyo 2020 Olympics off to a winning start for the hosts on Wednesday, kicking off a pandemic-postponed Games that the World Health Organization says can be “a celebration of hope” even as COVID-19 cases surge.
Olympics and Japanese officials have forged ahead with the sports spectacle despite opposition in the country to hosting more than 11,000 athletes, staff and media – dozens of whom have already tested positive for COVID-19.
Spectators have been barred and restrictions have been imposed in and around Tokyo in an effort to minimise health risks among residents and visitors.
WHO head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the Games should go ahead to demonstrate to the world what can be achieved with the right plan and measures.
“May the rays of hope from this land illuminate a new dawn for a healthy, safer and fairer world,” he said, holding aloft an Olympic Games torch as he addressed International Olympic Committee members in the Japanese capital. “It is my sincere hope the Tokyo Games succeed.”
However, Tedros warned the world was in the early stages of another wave of infections and criticised vaccine discrepancies between countries.
Japan, with about 34% of the population having had at least one dose of the vaccine, has been concerned the Olympics could become a super-spreader event.
In a recent poll in the Asahi newspaper, 68% of respondents expressed doubt about the ability of Olympic organisers to control coronavirus infections, with 55% saying they were opposed to the Games going ahead.
‘SOBERING’ OPENING CEREMONY
The Games’ official opening ceremony is on Friday and is expected to be a scaled-down, sobering performance, according to Marco Balich, a senior advisor to the Tokyo ceremonies executive producer.
As with the opening ceremony, the women’s softball match between gold-medal contender Japan and Australia was held without spectators amid buzzing cicadas and polite applause from a few hundred staff at the stadium in Fukushima. The region was devastated by the world’s worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl, which was triggered by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
Players standing along the benches under the scorching sun – 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit) by midgame – shouted at the hitters all morning, giving the game a Little League feel.
The game ended after five innings due to a mercy rule as a trio of Japanese two-run homers cleared the fence.
Two more softball games as well as the first six women’s soccer matches are scheduled for later Wednesday.
Tokyo 2020 organisers disclosed a further seven other COVID-19 infections among attendees on Wednesday, bringing the total to 75. Public broadcaster NHK said a Chilean taekwondo competitor plans to withdraw from the Olympic Games after testing positive.
Cases have been on the rise in Tokyo and Japanese media reported that government adviser Shigeru Omi said Tokyo daily COVID-19 infections may spike to a record of 3,000 in first week of August, more than double their recent peak.
That would cause an extremely high risk of pressuring on the already-stretched medical system.
Underscoring the downsized Games due to the pandemic, top government spokesperson Katsunobu Kato said Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will meet with only about 15 world leaders on the sidelines of the Olympics, compared with up to 120 previously.
Tokyo had hoped to replicate some of its successes of hosting the 1964 which helped launch Japan onto the international stage.
Olympic officials are expected later on Wednesday to confirm preferred bidder Brisbane as host of the 2032 Summer Games, Australia’s third time hosting the sporting extravaganza.