FUKUSHIMA, July 21 — A trio of two-run homers drove Japan to an 8-1 softball victory over Australia today in the first event of the pandemic-postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Only buzzing cicadas and polite applause from a few hundred staff were heard as the shots cleared the fence after spectators were banned at the stadium set amid the lush hills of Fukushima due to rising Covid-19 infections in Japan.
The game ended after five innings due to a mercy rule.
Players standing along the benches under the scorching sun — 30 degrees Celsius by midgame — shouted at the hitters all morning, giving the game a Little League feel.
Six competing softball teams will face each other once over six days before the top four head to bronze and gold medal games.
Olympics and Japanese officials have forged on with the Games despite opposition in the country to hosting more than 11,000 athletes and the staff and media that come with them amid the pandemic.
Two more softball games as well as the first six women’s soccer matches are scheduled for later today. The opening ceremony is Friday.
It was not a perfect start. Though rules require one, a chalk pitching circle was not laid until the fourth inning and a scoreboard did not operate for the first half-inning.
The Olympics dropped softball as a sport after 2008. But it was revived for these Games in Japan, where an estimated 400,000 people play the century-old sport. It will not return until at least 2028.
Japan are seeking their second consecutive gold and their fourth straight medal, with the United States its top rival. Australia are seeking their fifth medal in as many chances but their first gold.
The initial two days of games are being held at a baseball stadium in Fukushima, a region badly affected by the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster.
After the 2008 Beijing Olympics featured a softball-specific venue, a temporary fencing in the outfield and an electronically-lowered pitching mound for the sport in Fukushima have attracted scorn from fans. But coaches have called the field excellent and said they were grateful to further Fukushima’s rejuvenation.
To offer some semblance of fans, concourses at stadiums including the one at Fukushima have been lined with young peach trees and other plants bearing messages from local children urging athletes to “go for gold”. — Reuters