FUKUSHIMA, Japan, July 21 (Reuters) - Japan, the United States and Canada let a lone run among them during victories in softball on Wednesday as the first event of the pandemic-postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics began without spectators against the backdrop of the lush hills of Fukushima.
"I feel relieved," Japan pitcher Yukiko Ueno said after the day's first dominant start.
Olympics and Japanese officials could also stop holding their collective breath after more than a year of uncertainty over whether the Games could be staged with deadly waves of coronavirus infections forcing athletes to train alone and spectators to stay home. The opening ceremony is on Friday.
Winners said they overcame nervousness after a long wait to get here, while losers said they struggled to shake jitters fast enough.
Ueno, ace of Japan's 2008 gold medal run when softball was last in the Olympics, escaped loaded bases after walking one and hitting two in the first inning. She blamed her command issues on excitement from the "very long time" between Olympics – a remark she illustrated for reporters by stretching out her arms.
Ueno went on to surrender two hits over 4-1/3 innings, and a trio of two-run homers powered an 8-1 mercy-rule win over Australia. Only buzzing cicadas and polite applause from a few hundred staff were heard as Japan's shots cleared the fence.
The United States defeated Italy 2-0, riding a nine-strikeout, single-hit performance from left-hander Cat Osterman, who returned from retirement for a chance at a second gold. Her six shutout innings left her with just two runs against in 39.4 innings across three Olympics.
Canada closed Wednesday's action by beating Olympics newcomer Mexico 4-0 after gaining four no-hit innings from Sara Groenewegen, who three years ago survived 10 days in a coma while battling Legionnaries’ disease, a sometimes deadly form of pneumonia.
Canada is the only team out of five that have played in each of the four Olympics tournaments to have never won a medal.
All six teams face each other once over six days before the top four advance to the medal games. The first two days are at a baseball stadium in Fukushima, a region badly affected by the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster.
There were hiccups, including the required chalk pitching circle not being laid until the first game's fourth inning. Organisers said they recognized the oversight quickly and that it did not affect play.
To offer some semblance of fan involvement, concourses at stadiums including the one at Fukushima have been lined with young plants bearing messages from children urging athletes to "go for gold".
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