Thursday, December 9

Olympics to start, but first softball game unlikely to distract a fearful nation | Tokyo 2020 Olympics

The Olympic softball teams of Japan and Australia will have to produce something akin to a classic this week if they are to divert attention from an increasingly chaotic backlog toward the Tokyo Games.

In normal times, memories of the scandals that ruined preparations for the Games, from accusations of vote buying during the bidding stage to high-profile resignations for sexism, would fade into the background as soon as the first pitch is made in the Azuma baseball stadium. in Fukushima on Wednesday in opening action of the Olympics.

But having started a failed campaign to cancel the Games, the coronavirus dominates the final countdown to Friday’s opening ceremony in the host city, where the heat and humidity add to the feeling of cabin fever in the village. of athletes locked up.

With four full days to ignite the Olympic cauldron in the nearly empty 68,000-seat main stadium, the virus is already proving the claims of International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach that it will have “zero” influence on the Games that have. described as the “best prepared of all time”.

Organizers have identified more than 60 Games-related Covid-19 cases, including two South African footballers and a team member of staff. Another 21 members of the South African party have been identified as close contacts. The outbreak has cast doubt on the team’s opening game this Thursday against Japan.

Six British track and field athletes and two staff members are now isolating themselves at their hotel in Yokohama after they were deemed close contacts of someone who tested positive on their flight to Japan. Coco Gauff will not travel to Tokyo after the American tennis star tested positive, while an anonymous member of the American gymnastics team also tested positive after arriving.

In the space of a couple of days, Tokyo 2020 has generated a worrying news stream that should make organizers doubt whether the sport will deliver the much-needed wellness factor and offer an alternative conduit for the pent-up emotions of a host population that would prefer. that the Games weren’t happening.

What would have been a highly symbolic visit by South Korean President Moon Jae-in to attend the opening ceremony and hold his first face-to-face talks with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was abruptly canceled on Monday after from a A senior Japanese diplomat in Seoul accused Moon of “masturbating” over his country’s strained ties to Japan.

Softball cannot start soon enough for Suga, who has spoken of the sport’s potential to calm a deeply resentful Japanese public. However, even a resounding victory for the Japanese softball team is unlikely to offer much comfort. Support for his administration has plummeted to 36%, according to a weekend poll, with disapproval of nearly 50%, the highest since he took office last September. Compounding their misery, a separate survey found that two-thirds of people in Japan do not believe the country can host a safe and secure Olympics.

The news of Moon’s cancellation came shortly after another blow from a more surprising source, when automaker, and main Olympic sponsor, Toyota said it would not run Tokyo 2020-themed TV ads during the Games and that its CEO Akio Toyoda, probably to skip the opening ceremony. “The Olympics are becoming an event that has not gained the public’s understanding,” a Toyota executive told the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper.

Fukushima's Azuma Baseball Stadium, which will host the inaugural softball game between Australia and Japan on Wednesday.
Fukushima’s Azuma Baseball Stadium, which will host the inaugural softball game between Australia and Japan on Wednesday. Photograph: Issei Kato / Reuters

Over the weekend, local media reported that a university student from Uzbekistan had been arrested for allegedly raping a Japanese woman while doing a part-time catering job at the Olympic Stadium. It’s easy to forget that Tokyo 2020 was originally launched as a celebration of Japan’s recovery from its worst natural disaster since the war.

On March 11, 2011, a massive tsunami destroyed the backup power supply at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, causing three of its reactors to collapse that forced tens of thousands of residents to evacuate. Across the Tohoku region of northeast Japan, the tsunami, preceded by an earthquake so powerful that it shifted the Earth on its axis, killed more than 18,000 people.

A decade later, much of the destroyed coastline has been rebuilt, but parts of Fukushima are still off limits because radiation levels are still too high. Neighborhoods where evacuation orders have been lifted face an uncertain future after many former residents decided not to return.

With the operators of the Fukushima plant struggling to contain a backlog of contaminated water that will controversially be released into the Pacific Ocean, few are convinced that Fukushima is “under control,” a claim made by the former prime minister, Shinzo Abe, during a presentation of his last offer to the IOC in 2013.

But the dangerous and costly decommissioning of Fukushima Daiichi is unlikely to upset the women of Australia and Japan when they open their Olympic accounts under the gaze of global media about 70 kilometers west of the plant on Wednesday morning.

If a softball game fails to lift national spirits, it will at least set the tone for dozens of events to follow over the next fortnight. Not only will it be played in fierce temperatures and predicted with a possible thunderstorm, the action will unfold out of sight of the local population after Fukushima Governor Masao Uchibori reversed plans by organizers to allow the entrance to about 7,000 spectators. event venue.

As the first foreign athletes to arrive in Japan nearly a month ago, the Aussie Spirit women have at least had time to acclimate to the climate and life inside the Covid bubble. For Japan, Wednesday’s game will be a chance to win a second straight softball gold, 13 years after its last appearance in the Summer Games.

Team manager Taeko Utsugi said the players knew they were about to represent a country frightened by a pandemic that is struggling to match their enthusiasm for the sport’s return, albeit temporarily, to the Olympic fold for the first time since. Beijing 2008.

“These will be different from the Olympics we have had so far,” he told the Kyodo news agency. ‚ÄúThere are so many different sides to this. I had no role in the Olympic decisions, so I don’t know how I should feel about it. As far as we are concerned, we have to focus on the things that we have to do and we can control. “

On Tuesday July 20 at 12 noon BST, join British Olympians Mary Peters, Fatima Whitbread and Alistair Brownlee for an event streamed live on Guardian Live as they look towards Tokyo 2020. Book tickets here.

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