Australia’s softball squad arrives in Japan for training camp

(Reuters) — Australia’s softball squad arrived in Japan for a pre-Olympic training camp on Tuesday, even as a majority of the Japanese public opposes holding the world’s biggest multi-sports event in a country where the COVID-19 vaccine rollout has been slow.

Their arrival came as a top government spokesman said Japan, battling a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections, planned to start vaccinations at workplaces and universities on June 21 to speed up the country’s inoculation drive.

Only about 3% of Japan’s population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Vaccinations of Japan’s Olympic athletes will begin on Tuesday.

The Australian softball squad, the first national team to come to Japan for training since the Games were postponed last year due to the pandemic, left Sydney on Monday for a 47-day camp in the central Japanese city of Ota, some 80km (50 miles) northwest of Tokyo.

All members of the delegation have been vaccinated and are scheduled to be tested for the novel coronavirus every day during their stay, said an official of Ota, an industrial city with a population of about 220,000.

Kyodo news agency said all had tested negative for the virus upon arrival in Tokyo.

Members of the squad, wearing face masks and green T-shirts, waved to media after going through customs and then boarded a bus for the three-hour trip to Ota.

NHK public TV said three floors of their hotel had been roped off for their exclusive use to minimise contact with other guests.

Australia have won medals in each of the four previous Olympic softball competitions, taking the bronze in 1996, 2000 and 2008 and a silver in 2004.

They will play the opening game against hosts Japan, who won gold in 2008, on July 21, two days before the official opening ceremony of the Games.

Japan has avoided the large-scale infections suffered by many other nations, but severe cases have been rising in the latest outbreak and 10 regions including Tokyo will remain under a state of emergency at least until June 20.

More than 741,000 cases have been recorded and nearly 13,000 deaths.

Olympic Minister Tamayo Marukawa told a news conference that 105 Japanese municipalities had cancelled plans to host overseas teams ahead of the Games, most because the delegations will now go directly to the Athletes Village in Tokyo, the Nikkei daily said.

In a poll published by the Nikkei on Monday, over 60% of respondents were in favour of postponing the Games again or scrapping them altogether.