The very first event of the Tokyo Olympics, a softball match between Japan and Australia, was staged Wednesday in the city of Fukushima to little fanfare.

While some locals found a ray of hope in the host country’s win, the underlying theme of the Games — to showcase the region’s recovery from the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake — has been overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Japan beat Australia 8-1 in the women’s softball tournament held at Fukushima Azuma stadium in the city, two days before the formal opening of the Games.

“Despite all adversities associated with the coronavirus, the Tokyo Olympics made a good start,” said Yoshitsugu Hashimoto, 65, who lives right across from the ballpark but watched the match — held without spectators as a precaution against the spread of the virus — on TV at home.

“I missed the loud cheers of spectators that I used to hear whenever ballgames were held at the stadium. But I believe people in Fukushima are encouraged by the athletes’ performance,” said Hashimoto, who worked at a Canon Inc. factory for 46 years before retiring last September.

“It was a good win as the first match. I have great expectations for this team,” said Hatsuo Nagasawa, 73, head of the softball association of Fukushima Prefecture and the Tohoku region, who suggested the win may turn the tide in favor of the pandemic-hit Olympics that have so far been shrouded by criticism and doubts.

Road closures were enforced around the stadium, and access to the ballpark was strictly restricted. As officials and press members were escorted into the stadium in motorcades led by police and security authorities, there was no sense of a festive mood.

All associated events that had been planned around the venue prior to announcement of the no-spectator policy were canceled as part of COVID-19 countermeasures. The only notable sounds heard in the area were that of a helicopter circling over the site and screaming cicadas.

“The bid for the Games was made under the flag of a ‘Reconstruction Olympics,’ but now it is hard to see the theme as the coronavirus is overshadowing everything,” said Nobuyuki Saito, the 67-year-old secretary general of a nonprofit organization in Fukushima. “I think it is regrettable.”

To help build momentum toward the Olympics, set to formally begin Friday in the capital about 260 kilometers from Fukushima, Saito had participated in volunteer activities. He wanted people around the world to see a recovering Fukushima Prefecture, which was devastated by the quake, ensuing tsunami and nuclear crisis a decade ago.

About 36,000 evacuees, especially those from near the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, have not been able to return home yet, but radiation levels have gone down to safe levels in most parts of the area now.

The Japanese leg of the torch relay began in late March at the prefecture’s J-Village soccer training center, which was used for years as an operation base for workers who battled the nuclear crisis, before passing through hundreds of municipalities in all the nation’s 47 prefectures.

“As the Games were regarded as an opportunity to show the current status of Fukushima, a variety of plans had been underway before the no-spectator decision,” said Seiichi Anbai, chairman of the Fukushima city softball association.

“Our emotions are polarized, because considering the coronavirus situation it is sort of understandable. But at the same time, we wanted the Games being held with an audience,” Anbai, 69, said.

He added that he still hopes more people will know about softball and play the sport because of the Olympics.

Some people in Fukushima, especially sports lovers, are still excited about the Olympics and Paralympics being staged in Japan, and remain optimistic about what the Games might accomplish.

“I’m excited to watch the Games. I think they will pick up momentum as Japanese athletes deliver moving performances and win medals,” said Ryosuke Yamazaki, a public high school teacher in Fukushima, adding that he personally is most looking forward to watching the track and field events.

Saitoadded, “I think people will talk about the Olympics held under the pandemic for a long time. I strongly hope the Games will be a success even without spectators.”

After barring spectators from overseas in March, Olympic organizers made the unprecedented decision earlier this month to stage almost all competitions without allowing ticket holders in the stands due to a resurgence of COVID-19 infections in Tokyo and elsewhere.

Fukushima Mayor Hiroshi Kohata has said that holding the Games with “no spectators is a pity, but we ought not to take down our ‘Reconstruction Olympics’ banner.”

The Olympic baseball opener between Japan and the Dominican Republic will also be held at the same ballpark on July 28.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga stressed in an interview last week that the meaning of the Olympics would not be lost even though the events will be held behind closed doors, because some 4 billion people around the world will likely watch the Games on television and other screens.

“I hope they can see the recovery of Fukushima via audiovisual footage,” Suga said.

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