The Japanese 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.
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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.”
Spectators have been barred and restrictions have been imposed in and around Tokyo, where COVID-19 infections are surging, in an effort to minimize health risks among residents and visitors.
Japan, with about 34 percent 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 percent of respondents expressed doubt about the ability of Olympic organizers to control coronavirus infections, with 55 percent 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 adviser 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 a stadium in Fukushima, which was devastated by the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster.
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, while the United States overcame Italy 2-0 and Canada beat Mexico.
The first of six women’s soccer matches on Wednesday were also underway.
Coronavirus infections continued to take a toll among attendees, however, with at least seven more positive cases bringing the total to more than 75.
Dutch skateboarder Candy Jacobs confirmed she had tested positive for COVID-19 and is pulling out of the Games, along with a Chilean taekwondo competitor.
“I will need some time to let my broken heart heal and recover from this,” Jacobs wrote on her Instagram account.
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 the first week of August, more than double their recent peak.
On Wednesday, Tokyo reported 1,832 new cases in the capital, the highest figure so far for the day of the week and up by 683 from a week earlier.
Rising infections risk adding to the pressure on the already-stretched Japanese 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.
In the skies above Tokyo, Japanese pilots drew the five Olympic rings in a practice flight for Friday’s opening ceremony, recreating a similar stunt at the 1964 Tokyo Games, which were held to highlight the country’s recovery from World War Two.
The Australian city of Brisbane won the rights to hold the 2032 Summer Games, Australia’s third time hosting the sporting extravaganza, after the International Olympic Committee approved the recommendation of its executive board.
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