Sydney – Members of the Australian softball team are excited to become the first group of Olympic athletes to arrive in Japan for the Tokyo Games when they touch down on Tuesday, despite concerns about the spread of the coronavirus in the host nation.
A total of 23 Aussie Spirit players and five staff will leave Australia on Monday before traveling to Ota in Gunma Prefecture, northwest of Tokyo, the following day for their pre-Olympic training camp.
Softball Australia CEO David Pryles told Kyodo News the athletes have “gone through the most stringent measures possible” to be able to enter Japan at a time when international travel has been severely restricted due to the coronavirus pandemic.
All team members have received coronavirus vaccinations and will be required to undergo regular polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing upon arrival.
Once in Japan, the players and staff will also remain completely separated from the general public.
“As soon as we arrive, we go into a bus that takes us three hours north to Ota city,” explained Pryles. “Then all the bedrooms, all the meeting rooms, all the dining rooms — and we’re taking our own gym equipment — that will be based on one floor only.”
Players will only be allowed to leave the hotel to travel to and from training facilities, with all in-person meet-ups — including exchange events with local school children — conducted online.
“Effectively we’re quarantining on one floor, but the only reason why we’re leaving is to go straight to the ballpark so we don’t have any connection with anyone,” Pryles said.
Life in Japan for the players will be significantly more restricted than in Australia, where community transmission of the coronavirus has almost entirely been suppressed, except for a recent outbreak in the state of Victoria.
However, Pryles said the players were happy to make the sacrifice and attend training camp after being unable to train together as a group since February 2020.
“We do have a couple of games scheduled against the Japanese national team, so we just need to get games into the girls,” he said, adding there were few opportunities to face high-level opponents in Australia.
“We’ve been (to) four Olympic games, we’ve won a medal at four Olympic Games, so we are aiming to win a medal (in Tokyo),” Pryles said.
For player Tahli Moore, the Olympics will be her first trip to Japan. While the 26-year-old is disappointed she won’t be able to see more of the country, she is excited by the opportunity to travel again.
“With everything that’s going on in the world right now with COVID, I’m really confident with the approach that we’re taking and how the Australian Olympic Committee’s really putting our health first and making sure that we’re all vaccinated,” she said.
“To know that we’re going to be the first team over there, it’s pretty special.”
The softball match between Japan and Australia will also be the opening game of the Olympics, adding to the players’ excitement.
Pryles admitted it was “not ideal” that events with local school children were canceled.
“(It is) a real shame that the next generation of athletes, not just for softball, but in Japan (in general) don’t really have that engagement with the best athletes in the world coming over,” said Pryles, who looks forward to being able to engage with Japanese fans again in the future.
Player Rachel Lack, 26, said she spoke to Australian softball teams online during a coronavirus lockdown in the country last year, and hopes to replicate a similar experience with children in Japan.
“I feel most of us have been on Zoom for a while, so hopefully it will be easy,” she said.
With less than two months until the start of the games, opposition to the Olympics has been growing in Japan, with almost 60% of respondents to a Kyodo News poll conducted earlier in May saying they felt the event should be canceled.
Lack said while she understood people’s reluctance to holding the games, she hoped the sporting event would help boost morale.
“The Olympics in general could have that potential to (let people) see what nations and your nation can do, despite the pandemic,” she said.
Aussie Spirit was among the teams competing at the 1996 Atlanta Games when softball made its debut, and has taken home one silver and three bronze medals.
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