Australia's softball team on Tuesday became the first athletes to land in Japan for the Tokyo Olympics, in a major step forward for the pandemic-postponed event which remains plagued by coronavirus fears.
The “Aussie Spirit” team, wearing face masks and green and gold uniforms, were ushered straight from the plane for coronavirus testing, part of the strict biosecurity measures designed to stop infections at the Games.
The 2020 Games, which will start a year late on July 23, continue to suffer low public support with much of Japan including Tokyo under a virus state of emergency until late June.
Around three hours after landing, an official confirmed the group had all tested negative and they left for their training camp in Ota City, around 100 kilometres (60 miles) north of Tokyo.
The team and staff are all vaccinated but still had to test negative before departure and on arrival in Japan.
They will face stringent rules during their training camp, with no family members allowed and the delegation confined to one floor of their hotel.
Despite the unusual “bubble” conditions, their arrival is a boost for the Games at a time when polls indicate a majority of Japanese want the Games further delayed or cancelled altogether.
However, organisers say detailed virus rulebooks will keep athletes and the public safe, and point out that around 80 percent of those in the Olympic Village will be vaccinated.
Before leaving Australia, the team said they were excited to be getting back to play after pandemic disruption. For some, Tokyo 2020 could be their last shot at Olympic glory, as softball will not feature at Paris 2024.
“We know it’s going to be a bit of a long trip over, we know we’re going to go through lots and lots of Covid testing,” player Jade Wall said in Sydney.
“But look, we’re all prepared for it, we want to do everything that we can to make sure that we’re safe when we get there and we’re safe while we’re in Japan as well.”
Vaccines for Japan athletes
The team will only leave their hotel for games and training, Softball Australia CEO David Pryles said on Monday.
But the trip is still a “huge” moment for the team, who had their Olympic preparations interrupted by the pandemic and have not played together since February 2020, he told AFP.
Their first fixture — against the hosts — will kick off Olympic competition on July 21, two days before the opening ceremony.
Many cities around Japan have scrapped training camps for Olympic athletes over virus fears.
But Ota’s Mayor Masayoshi Shimizu told reporters on Monday that the city was proud to “offer support to show our friendship” and maintain long-running ties with Australia.
In another sign of momentum towards the Games, vaccinations of Japanese Olympic athletes begin later Tuesday.
They’ll be jumping the queue, as Japan’s comparatively slow vaccine rollout so far only applies to medical workers and the elderly.
Just over seven percent of people in Japan have so far received a first dose, with around 2.5 percent fully vaccinated, though the pace has picked up in recent days.