Olympics-Softball-2020 Games begin as Japan, Australia take the field

FUKUSHIMA, Japan, July 21 (Reuters) - Japanese pitcher Yukiko Ueno began the pandemic-postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics on Wednesday by firing a fastball off the plate to start a softball game against Australia amid a sea of empty blue and orange seats ringing the field.

Olympics and Japanese officials have forged on with the sports spectacle despite opposition in the country to hosting more than 11,000 athletes and the staff and media that come with them amid rising COVID-19 infections.

Two more softball games as well as the first six women’s soccer matches are scheduled for later Wednesday. The opening ceremony is Friday.

Coaches for the six softball competing nations applauded organisers on Tuesday for creating a safe environment and said their players particularly appreciate the Olympics not being cancelled.

The Olympics dropped softball as a sport after 2008. But it was revived for these Games in Japan, where an estimated 400,000 people play the century-old sport here. It will not return until at least 2028.

Japan are seeking their second consecutive gold and their fourth straight medal, with the United States its top rival. Australia are seeking their fifth medal in as many chances but their first gold.

The initial two days of games are being held at a baseball stadium at the foot of lush hills in Fukushima, a region badly affected by the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster.

After the 2008 Olympics in China featured a softball-specific venue, a temporary fencing in an outfield and an electronically-lowered pitching mound for the sport in Fukushima has attracted scorn from fans. But coaches have called the field excellent and said they were grateful to further Fukushima’s rejuvenation.

While spectators are banned, concourses at stadiums including the one at Fukushima are lined with young peach trees and other plants bearing messages from local children urging athletes to “go for gold”.

Reporting by Paresh Dave; Editing by Karishma Singh