• REUTERS, KYODO

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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.

Spectators have been barred and restrictions have been imposed in and around Tokyo in an effort to minimize health risks among residents and visitors.

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 Tokyo. “It is my sincere hope the Tokyo Games succeed.”

Tedros, however, said it is not possible to reduce the risks of the coronavirus to zero at the Olympics, adding that the success of the Games should be judged on how well infection cases are handled.

Tedros said anti-virus measures the organizers have drawn up with the advice of his organization will be “put to the test.”

“The mark of success … is not zero risk. I know that some cases have already been detected,” he said. “The mark of success is making sure that any cases are identified, isolated, traced and cared for as quickly as possible and onward transmission is interrupted.”

Japan, with about 34% of the population having had at least one dose of the vaccine, has been concerned the Olympics could become a superspreader event.

In a recent poll in the Asahi newspaper, 68% of respondents expressed doubt about the ability of Olympic organizers to control coronavirus infections, with 55% 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 adviser to the Tokyo ceremonies executive producer.

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus receives the Olympic torch from International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach during the second day of an IOC meeting in Tokyo on Wednesday. | GREG MARTIN / IOC / VIA AFP-JIJI
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus receives the Olympic torch from International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach during the second day of an IOC meeting in Tokyo on Wednesday. | GREG MARTIN / IOC / VIA AFP-JIJI

Emperor Naruhito will declare the opening of the Games, but may avoid using the word “celebrating” or similar terms, a government official said. He will take part in the event without Empress Masako, the Imperial Household Agency said, as the organizers aim to reduce the number of attendees to prevent the spread of the virus.

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 the stadium in Fukushima. The region was devastated by the world’s worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl, which was triggered by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

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.

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 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 domestic media reported that government adviser Shigeru Omi said Tokyo daily COVID-19 infections may spike to a record of 3,000 in first week of August, more than double their recent peak.

That would risk putting more pressure on the already-stretched 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 as previously planned.

Kato told a news conference about 70 Cabinet-level officials are also set to visit Japan, while adding that the number of foreign VIPs attending the ceremony at the National Stadium on Friday night could remain in flux until the last minute.

French President Emmanuel Macron and Mongolian Prime Minister Luvsannamsrai Oyun-Erdene are among the world leaders who have announced their attendance, as has U.S. first lady Jill Biden.

A senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official has said the recent global rage of coronavirus variants has led many leaders to cancel their Japan visits.

Japan's aerial aerobatics team, the Blue Impulse, practice for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony above the National Stadium in the capital on Wednesday. | REUTERS
Japan’s aerial aerobatics team, the Blue Impulse, practice for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony above the National Stadium in the capital on Wednesday. | REUTERS

Still, Kato suggested the leaders’ visits will provide Suga with a “valuable opportunity to build up personal relationships” at a time when face-to-face diplomacy is being constrained by the pandemic.

Tokyo had hoped to replicate some of its successes of hosting the 1964 Games, which helped launch Japan onto the international stage.

Olympic officials on Wednesday confirmed Brisbane as host of the 2032 Summer Games, Australia’s third time hosting the sporting extravaganza.

As for the Beijing Winter Olympics, which start in less than 200 days, the IOC stressed on Wednesday that those games would need spectators to be successful.

“We would like to have the international community there,” said Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., who heads the IOC’s coordination commission, overseeing preparations for the Beijing Games.

“We need very successful Games next year in Beijing. We really need that success for the sake of everybody … for keeping that light of hope really bright and open.”

The Beijing Games, set for Feb. 4-20 next year, have yet to launch their ticketing program. It was delayed due to the pandemic.

“We need and we want to have spectators,” he told an IOC session in Tokyo. “We want to have the opportunity for everybody to enjoy the hospitality and enjoy the great Chinese offers.”

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