TOKYO – The Australian softball players, who arrived in Japan this week for the final phase of their training ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, have spent most of their lives trying to reach the world’s premier sporting event.
Now they will experience much of their Olympic moment, limited to small hotel rooms.
The Australian women are the first team to turn up in the host country ahead of the Games, which opens in seven weeks. Their brief arrival offers a preview of an Olympics like no other, while much of the world remains in the clutches of a deadly pandemic.
There are daily PCR tests. The players are restricted to three floors of their hotel in Ota City, about two and a half hours from Tokyo in Gunma Prefecture, and use one elevator separated from other guests. They eat in their own dining room. Only six people are allowed in the gym at a time, so the 23 athletes have a turn schedule. They are not allowed to visit local pubs, restaurants or shrines, but they may meet in a hotel meeting room with a Nintendo Switch.
“We are the guinea pigs at this point,” said Tahli Moore, 27, who plays second base and outfield. “We show that it’s possible, and we show that it’s really safe.”
As the Olympic organizers struggle to convince a skeptical public that the Games will not become a super-distributor, the Australian softball players are a test case for an extensive system of security protocols that should protect both the athletes and the Japanese public.
Though the first thousands of athletes are there, nine prefectures in Japan are in a state of emergency in which restaurants and bars are being asked to limit hours and suspend alcohol service. Although deaths in Japan have remained lower than in other hard-hit countries, nearly three times as many people died from the coronavirus in the first five months of this year as in 2020. The government’s chief medical adviser, Shigeru Omi, said: told a parliamentary committee this week that it is “not normal” to hold the Games under pandemic conditions. And about 10,000 Olympic volunteers stopped.
In Ota, where Australian players practice on a local field – the only place they are allowed to go outside the hotel – many residents said they had heard that the athletes only arrive after receiving television news reports about their arrival at Narita airport near have seen. Tokyo.
“I did not even know Ota City hosted the team,” said Takao Sekine, 68, owner of La Terrasse Creole, a Western-style restaurant that has had fewer customers in recent years than at any time. in its 30-year history. If it were not for the coronavirus, he said, “the Olympics and the Australian players who came here would have been great for business.”
Now, he said, he is worried about a possible health risk. Comparing the pandemic to World War II, he said: “If American planes were to fly over us, we could run away. But we can not run away from a virus that you can not see. So people are very scared. As a result, he said: “My honest feeling when I think of the world is that the Olympics should stop.”
Olympic organizers and Japanese government officials say they are confident the Games can be kept safe. Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, said at least 80 percent of the athletes would be vaccinated upon their arrival in Tokyo, and the president of the Japanese Olympic Committee told reporters this week that 95 percent of Japanese athletes would be vaccinated. (Among the general public, only 3 percent of Japanese are fully vaccinated.)
Even without vaccinations, Japan has managed to keep infections out of control. Schools have remained open and many people still use public transport, buy and visit sports and other cultural events. Masks are ubiquitous.
“We were able to keep movie theaters open and still reduce cases of contamination,” said Makoto Shimoaraiso, an official in the government’s cabinet secretariat. “So we can definitely hold the Olympics while keeping infections under control.”
Despite the assurance, almost a quarter of the 528 communities that initially joined the host of Olympic teams from abroad will no longer do so. Some towns withdrew their invitations. But in many cases – about a hundred – international teams have decided not to come to Japan before the Games, due to concerns about the coronavirus, said Yasuhiro Omori, a Cabinet Secretariat official overseeing the host city initiative.
Some towns are disappointed with the canceled visits.
Kamo, a city of about 25,000 people in Niigata Prefecture in western Japan, spent about 70 million yen – or nearly $ 635,000 – to build gymnastics training facilities for its scheduled guests from Russia. Hirokazu Suzuki, a sports official in the city, said the gymnasts had canceled their plans to train there. “We were shocked,” Suzuki said, “but we also understood that there are people abroad who are scared.”
In Higashimatsuyama, a city of more than 90,000 people in the suburbs of Tokyo, Yukio Ohtani, a city official, said he had agreed to host a delegation from Cuba. The city began serving Latin American foods such as picadillo, ajiaco and flan during lunch at local public elementary and middle schools.
But the city withdrew its offer because officials from the local university where the Olympians had to stay said they felt uncomfortable admitting the athletes on campus when students could only attend online. “We have prepared so much,” he said. Ohtani said. “But because of the coronavirus, it’s understandable.”
For cities hosted by athletes, the Japanese government has budgeted just over $ 115 million for extra protection against contamination, Mr. Omori of the Cabinet Secretariat said. He said the host cities agreed to test athletes for the virus daily, assign them on separate floors of hotels, rent buses to transport them to training facilities and install plastic dividers between tables in dining halls.
Mr. Omori said the visiting teams should sign a form in which they promise not to make contact with the general public. As Japan currently bans most international travelers, Mr. Omori said, the athletes are “given a very special exception because they understand that they are following the rules.”
In Ota, a city of 250,000 people, Australian softball players and five staff members – all of whom have been vaccinated – are undergoing a four-day quarantine limited to their hotel. But the players said they did not notice any supervision over their movements. Apart from guards outside the hotel, there appears to be no police presence to keep them locked up.
Chelsea Forkin, 31, a member of the national team since 2008, said the athletes play a lot of Mario Kart on the Nintendo console and eat mostly Western foods like eggs and bacon for breakfast and steak and pasta for dinner. In light of polls showing that the Japanese population is largely against the Olympics, she said the team wants to set a strong example and obey all safety protocols.
“We can not go outside and go for a walk, but it’s OK,” she said. Forkin said. “We understand the rules and want to be respectful.”
David Pryles, CEO of Softball Australia, said the team spirit includes a wellness counselor to help with mental health, along with a team doctor – resources that would not necessarily include it for international competitions before the pandemic.
He said the restrictions on movement, which would continue to the Olympic Village – where food halls would have baffled schedules and drinking and partying would be discouraged – would be a huge disappointment to many athletes.
Moore, the Australian second baseman, said the team’s arrival in Japan was noticeably muted. There was no welcome party, and there will be no interaction with family or fans. The team plans to practice, play and then leave.
“It’s basically a business trip,” she said.
Even the staff members at their hotel seem to struggle with a mixture of disappointment and determination, as if they keep saying to themselves: stay focused, stay safe, make the best of an imperfect event.
“They keep finding our happiness,” she said, “which takes us on board.”
Motoko Rich reported from Tokyo, and Damien Cave from Sydney, Australia. Hikari Hida reported from Tokyo.