Tokyo opened its doors to international competition again on Sunday, with superstar gymnast Kohei Uchimura among those participating at a meet viewed by some as a test case for whether an international sporting event — namely next year’s postponed Tokyo Olympics — can safely be held in Japan in the middle of a pandemic.
“King Kohei” was the headliner at Yoyogi National Gymnasium, as 30 gymnasts from Japan, China, Russia and the United States competed in the Friendship and Solidarity Competition.
“I think this event is a good model case for other sports and other athletes,” Uchimura said.
For Uchimura, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, it was his first international event in two years and the crowd hung on his every move. They cheered when he stuck the landing after flipping through the air on the vault and roared after his performance on the horizontal bar.
The meet was the first international competition in Japan featuring athletes arriving from overseas since the Tokyo Games were cancelled in March because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Whether or not the Summer Olympics will go ahead in 2021 is still in question, as COVID-19 is still disrupting life around the world. With the scheduled start of the games less than a year away, Sunday’s competition was a chance for the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) and Japan Gymnastics Association to take a small test run toward next summer, when far more than 30 athletes will be coming to Japan to compete.
Uchimura said it’d been a difficult year for everyone due to the coronavirus and that it was regrettable the 2020 games weren’t able to be held. He said the prevailing thought among many in Japan was probably that the country wouldn’t be able to host the games because of the virus, which has spread rapidly around the world. However, the seven-time Olympic medalist left Sunday’s event with a more positive outlook toward the Olympics.
"I think we have to go from thinking we can't hold the Olympics to how can we do it," Uchimura said. "I really hope we'll be able to do that somehow."
The event seemed to go off without any major issues, likely to the relief of the organizers.
There were various measures in place to guard against the virus such as daily PCR testing and keeping athletes mostly quarantined in their hotels. Athletes coming from overseas were also required to take a PCR test 72 hours before their departure. The setup was similar to the bubbles implementedin other sports recently, such as in the NBA, NHL and French Open.
"For the sake of this event, the athletes from each country — Russia, China and the United States — had to face a hard time for the whole week, being quarantined and taking PCR tests every day," Japan's Asuka Teramoto said. "So I want to thank them."
While Yogogi National Gymnasium has a capacity of 13,291, organizers said only 2,094 attended the event, with organizers limited the crowd as part of their virus countermeasures.
Tokyo 2020 organizers were likely watching intently as everything played out and it's possible some of the same countermeasures could show up next summer if they are deemed to have been successful.
“We were in a similar situation from April,” Russia’s Nikita Nagornyy, the reigning all-around world champion, said. “So coming here and being in quarantine is nothing new. I think if we have to do the same thing when we come here next year, then safety is the important thing for the athletes and fans.”
Jones took the various countermeasures and daily testing as a positive.
"I honestly think it helped me a little bit," she said. "It kind of kept my mind in the zone."
For many, the meet was a chance to compete for the first time in a long while.
"You kind of forget what it's like to compete," American Yul Moldauer said. "Coming here with the three best countries in the world, it was almost like a mini-Olympic Games for us. So just to see everyone from every country again was really special."
Rather than competing for their own nations, the 30 gymnasts were split into two squads, Team Friendship and Team Solidarity. The top three scores on each apparatus were factored into the team's overall score. Uchimura and Nagornyy helped Team Solidarity to a 423.600-421.300 victory.
"I think this was a really good event," Uchimura said. "Not just because of the Olympics next year, but I just really, really enjoyed this event."
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