When 39-year-old pitcher Yukiko Ueno sent down the first delivery of Japan’s opening pool match of the Olympic softball competition against Australia, it finally signalled the start of a Games which, delayed by 12 months, were still being questioned even as they began.
Only hours earlier, a fairly flat-bat answer from Toshiro Muto, head of the Tokyo 2020 organising committee, had prompted a fresh round of headlines touting the possibility of the most 11th-hour of 11th-hour cancellations and the debate will no doubt carry on throughout the next three weeks and most likely beyond that, into next month’s Paralympics as well.
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The Games do not officially commence until Friday night’s opening ceremony, but there will be a degree of relief that they are now in some capacity underway, with the baseball and football tournaments also set to begin on “Day minus two”.Recovery was made a central theme of these Games well before the pandemic and so they were always slated to begin 150 miles from Tokyo in Fukushima, scene of the 2011 nuclear disaster, but the absence of fans meant the symbolic impact was nothing like the one which had so long ago been envisaged.
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“It’s kind of a disappointment,” Ueno said afterwards. “We wanted to demonstrate our play in front of people of Fukushima, who have made a lot of efforts to reconstruct Fukushima.”
The sight of empty stands is something to which we will all have to get accustomed again, just as we appear to have seen the back of them in the UK, but the return of softball and baseball to the Olympic programme for the first time since 2008 still promises to be a source of relief and potentially glory for the host nation’s devoted fans. Baseball is the most popular sport in Japan and its elite franchise competition, Nippon Professional Baseball, is the fifth-best attended domestic league in the world, behind only the NFL, Bundesliga, Premier League and AFL.
While the men will seek their first Olympic title at these Games, Japan’s women are the reigning softball champions, having triumphed in Beijing with an upset victory over the USA.
There it was Ueno’s heroics that had been so central and it was fitting that the woman who struck out the States to clinch gold was back 13 years later to kick-off this tournament as Japan began their defence in fine style, with a thumping win over Australia.
“Before the game I was actually trying to calm down and not let myself overly feel excited about this opportunity to go back to the mound for the Olympics,” said Ueno, who actually got off to a shaky start, conceding the first run on a hit-by-pitch before recovering as Minori Naito and Yamato Fujita scored home runs in an 8-1 rout that was ended after five innings.
It will take many more home triumphs, you sense, for sport to truly command centre stage.
Photo Credit: Getty