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With one month to go until the Tokyo Olympics kick off, municipalities that host participating athletes from abroad are performing a balancing act to secure their safety amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Although over 120 municipalities had canceled their plans to host foreign teams coming to Japan for pre-Olympic training and games, local governments that decided to remain hosts are dedicating a lot of energy to ensuring the athletes’ safe stays while considering how to allow local residents to cheer them on without direct interaction.

The city of Ota, Gunma Prefecture, has been hosting the women’s softball team from Australia since June 1, becoming the first Japanese municipality to accept an overseas Olympic team for a training camp since the Tokyo Games were postponed last year.

The city government first put off its plan to allow the public to view a practice match and reviewed measures to prevent the team members from contracting the coronavirus.

It eventually came up with the idea of asking locals to sign up to watch practice matches to limit the number of spectators.

“I was relieved” to see the matches held in the presence of the public, an Ota official said.

The team members haven’t been allowed to leave the hotel where they are staying, except for practice. Shopping requests have been handled by city officials.

Ota Mayor Masayoshi Shimizu has said he didn’t see any problem with the members going shopping. But many problems remain to be solved, including how to prevent infections during shopping and conversations with store clerks.

City officials taking care of the team will have to keep themselves busy protecting the members from the virus until they leave Ota for the Olympic Village in Tokyo on July 17.

Masayoshi Shimizu, mayor of Ota, Gunma Prefecture, talks to members of the Australian women's softball team for the Olympics during their camp in the city this month. | OTA CITY / VIA KYODO
Masayoshi Shimizu, mayor of Ota, Gunma Prefecture, talks to members of the Australian women’s softball team for the Olympics during their camp in the city this month. | OTA CITY / VIA KYODO

The town of Shimosuwa, Nagano Prefecture, will host rowing teams from Argentina and Italy in July.

The town government has only a few officials to attend the visiting teams since it has been preoccupied with administering residents’ coronavirus vaccination.

To prevent the team members’ infections with the virus with limited manpower, the town agreed with the two countries to transport the members by dedicated vehicles and restrict local people’s entry into training sites.

While revealing a plan to give residents an opportunity to view the athletes’ practice, a town official underscored the importance of not allowing spectators to come close to them.

In the city of Kamo, Niigata Prefecture, about 10 city government employees will be vaccinated to take care of the women’s gymnastics team from Portugal.

Host municipalities had initially hoped that local residents would have in-person exchanges with visiting athletes, but the pandemic has deprived the locals of those opportunities.

The Ota city government has canceled the Australian team’s planned visit to a local school.

“I feel we have lost half of the meaning as a host town,” Mayor Shimizu said.

The government is now considering holding some online interaction events.

The Shimosuwa town government also plans online exchanges between residents and the rowing team members and sending messages of encouragement from residents to them.

“We hope we will later be glad to have hosted the foreign athletes despite the difficult situation,” a town official said.

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