FUKUSHIMA – Host nation Japan breathed a sigh of relief by winning the first event of the pandemic-postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics, crushing Australia 8-1 in a spectatorless softball game held against the backdrop of the lush hills of Fukushima.
"I feel relieved," said Japan's starting pitcher Yukiko Ueno, who surrendered just two hits over 4⅓ innings, but saw her team easily prevail with a trio of two-run homers, including a go-ahead shot by Minori Naito in the third inning.
Yamato Fujita, a two-way star as a pitcher and hitter, and Yu Yamamoto had the other homers for Japan.
Olympics and Japanese officials could also stop holding their collective breath after more than a year of panic and uncertainty over whether the Games could be staged as coronavirus infections force athletes to train alone and spectators to stay home.
Ueno, ace of the softball team's 2008 gold medal run, struggled to throw strikes early and hit two Australians.
Coach Reika Utsugi said Ueno was too cautious after the pandemic had limited scrimmages. Ueno blamed her excitement on the "very long time" between Olympics — a remark she illustrated for reporters by outstretching her arms.
Ueno quickly bounced back. Australian designated player Tarni Stepto said her side failed to exert patience at the plate, leaving bases loaded in the first after scoring the game's initial run.
The game ended after five innings due to a mercy rule.
Only buzzing cicadas and polite applause from a few hundred staff were heard as Japan's shots cleared the fence.
Players standing along the benches under the scorching sun — 30 degrees Celsius by midgame — shouted at the hitters all morning and were easy to hear given the lack of spectators, giving the game a Little League feel.
The players needed ice water poured on their necks to help them stand the heat, Stepto said.
The six competing softball teams will face each other once over six days before the top four head to bronze and gold medal games.
The initial two days of games are being held at a baseball stadium in Fukushima, a region badly affected by the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster.
After the 2008 Beijing Olympics featured a softball-specific venue, the temporary fencing in the outfield and an electronically-lowered pitching mound in Fukushima have attracted scorn from fans.
There was at least one hiccup. Though rules require one, a chalk pitching circle was not laid until the fourth inning.
One furry fan also tried to sneak into the stadium: a bear.
A Fukushima police spokesman confirmed the ursine intruder was spotted last night and then again this morning, just hours before the opening pitch.
Local media identified the animal as an Asian black bear, with the Sports Hochi daily saying the entire contingent of Olympic guards assigned to the venue spent the night searching for the creature.
“We couldn’t find or capture the bear, and while there won’t be any spectators at the stadium, we are on alert and searching for the bear around the site,” the spokesman said.
To offer some semblance of fan support, concourses at stadiums including the one at Fukushima have been lined with young peach trees and other plants bearing messages from local children urging athletes to "go for gold."
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