Japan wins softball opener

Tokyo: 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.

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 in an effort to minimise health risks among residents and visitors. Japan, with about 34 per cent 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 per cent of respondents expressed doubt about the ability of Olympic organisers to control coronavirus infections, with 55 per cent saying they were opposed to the Games going ahead.

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 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.