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[JAPAN SPORTS NOTEBOOK] Daily COVID-19 Testing for Olympians is Latest Big Policy Change

This saliva test will be required for athletes and people who have close contact with Olympians “to minimize the risk of undetected positive cases that could transmit the virus.”

Ed Odeven

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With less than 85 days until the scheduled start of the Tokyo Olympics, changes to how the global extravaganza will be staged and managed are still being made.

Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee officials and leaders from the Tokyo and national governments plus International Olympic Committee and International Paralympic Committee officials held five-way talks in recent days to update their plans.

Adjustments were outlined this week in a new playbook, which is the second draft of the Tokyo Games’ protocol.

Among the biggest changes to materialize within the past week: All Olympic athletes will be tested every day for COVID-19 during the Tokyo Games. The same policy will be in effect for the Paralympics, it was announced on Wednesday, April 28.

This policy was implemented to “place the highest priority on safety for the sake of all participants, including the athletes, and the Japanese public who will be playing host to the Games,” read a statement issued by Tokyo 2020 organizers.

A daily COVID-19 saliva test will be required for athletes and people who have close contact with Olympians “to minimize the risk of undetected positive cases that could transmit the virus.”

In addition, Olympic athletes and support staff, such as coaches, will need to have two mandatory COVID-19 tests before traveling to Japan, organizers announced.

First and foremost, the organizers insisted in their statement that their mission is to “deploy all possible countermeasures and place the highest priority on safety.”

Tokyo 2020 organizers pushed back a decision on whether spectators will be permitted at Olympic events until June. (Overseas spectators have already been barred from attending. This article outlines the plan before it was formally announced.)

“We are prepared to hold the Games without spectators,” Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto told reporters.

With an increase of COVID-19 cases throughout Japan amidst the current state of emergency in Tokyo, Osaka and Aichi prefectures, public confidence in the government and Olympic organizers is quite low.

But IOC President Thomas Bach repeated the message that he’s been saying for months.

“The IOC is fully committed to the successful and safe delivery of the Olympic and Paralympic Games,” the Olympic chief said.

In related news this week, Tokyo 2020 organizers made a formal request to the Japanese Nursing Association for 500 nurses to be made available to work at the Tokyo Games.

There was considerable backlash within the medical community about this on social media, especially from the Medical Workers Union in Aichi Prefecture on Wednesday, April 28, when it held a “Twitter demonstration,” Kyodo News reported.

In a series of tweets, Kyodo News reported, the union’s message was as follows: “Now is the time to focus on coronavirus countermeasures, not the Olympics,” and “The medical front has reached its limit. We do not have staff to spare for the Olympics.”  

Golf

Matsuyama Receives Prime Minister’s Award

Hideki Matsuyama visited Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s office on Friday, April 30.

The visit marked another special day in the 29-year-old golfer’s year.

Matsuyama, the first Japanese male to win a golf major, became the 34th individual to receive the Prime Minister’s Award. A year ago, then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe honored the Hayabusa2 space probe project team for its scientific research and exploratory contributions.

“Due to the influence of the coronavirus, both worldwide and across Japan, we are all living different lives, but even in these times, if this win can provide a sliver of hope to people, and inspire more kids, or even just one kid to want to try and play golf in the future, that makes me extremely happy. I am very happy to receive the Prime Minister’s Award for winning the Masters,” said Matsuyama, who captured the Masters title on April 11.

He continued: “If me winning the Masters inspires little children to think that they too can now win the Masters, then that makes me extremely happy. I’d be thrilled if other athletes and kids look at golf and want to get better. I will continue to do my best.”

When Matsuyama competed at the Masters in April 2011 he was the top amateur finisher. Suga said this raised the spirits of people in the Tohoku region, where the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami had caused widespread devastation on March 11, 2011.

Ten years later, Matsuyama’s historic Masters win inspired the nation, according to Suga.

“You have continued to encourage the affected areas, marking the 10th anniversary of the disaster, and you have great courage,” Suga told Matsuyama during the award ceremony. 

“While contributing greatly to the progress of sports in Japan, the achievement of communicating the importance of effort to all the people and giving them dreams and hopes is truly remarkable.”

While visiting Suga’s office, Matsuyama also mentioned his desire to win the Olympic men’s golf tournament gold medal at Kasumigaseki Country Club in Saitama Prefecture this summer.

“This just makes me want to work even harder and do even better, and I thank you all for your continued support,” the Ehime Prefecture native said. “I will work hard to win a gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics.”

Sumo

Hibikiryu Dies a Month After Suffering a Head Injury

Hibikiryu, who sustained a head injury in a match on March 26, passed away on Wednesday, April 28 from acute respiratory failure, the Japan Sumo Association (JSA) announced. He was 28.

Hakkaku, the JSA chairman, issued a statement reacting to the news.

 “All members of the association express their deepest condolences,” Hakkaku said. “He fought hard like a true rikishi with the help of his family and doctors. Now I would like him to rest in peace.”

Paramedics arrived several minutes after Hibikiryu landed on his head during a Spring Grand Sumo Tournament bout at Ryogoku Kokugikan. He was taken out of the dohyo on a stretcher.


The fourth-tier sandanme division wrestler, whose given name was Mitsuki Amano, was conscious when he rode in an ambulance to the hospital, according to published reports.

The JSA isn’t disclosing many details about Hibikiryu’s death.

“The Japan Sumo Association said Friday that it was unknown whether Hibikiryu’s death was related to his injury,” The Associated Press reported. “It said details of the injury, including whether he suffered paralysis, could not be released. There was no immediate comment from his family.”

After making his pro debut in 2011, Hibikiryu ascended to a top rank of 24th among 200 wrestlers in the sandanme division.


Baseball

Ohtani Matches Babe Ruth’s Feat

Shohei Ohtani’s unique baseball career generated more first-time-in-many decades headlines when he was penciled in as the starting pitcher and No. 2 batter for the Los Angels Angels on Monday, April 26.

Ohtani entered the game tied for the MLB lead in home runs (seven).

He became the first pitcher since New York Yankees great Babe Ruth on June 13, 1921, to be leading MLB in home runs.

Ohtani gave up a three-run homer and four runs in total in the first inning, but helped his cause on offense, scoring three runs and slugging a two-run double in the second.

He pitched five innings, struck out nine and picked up the victory in the Angels’ 9-4 win over the Texas Rangers. It was Ohtani’s first MLB win since 2018.

“I’m very happy for the team victory,” Ohtani told reporters. “Personally that first inning was terrible, so I can’t be overly satisfied.”

He settled down after a shaky first inning, retiring 14 of the 15 final batters he faced.

“If you weren’t entertained by watching him tonight, you can’t be entertained by watching the game of baseball,” Angels manager Joe Maddon told ESPN.


Mariners Lefty Kikuchi Earns First Win of 2021

Seattle Mariners pitcher Yusei Kikuchi had a banner performance in his fifth start of the season on Thursday, April 29, holding the Houston Astros to one hit over seven scoreless innings at Minute Maid Park.

Kikuchi (1-1) issued two walks and struck out seven. 

Houston’s Carlos Correa smacked a double with one out in the seventh, the lone hit against Kikuchi.

“Heck of an outing and it couldn’t have come at a better time,” Mariners manager Scott Servais told reporters after the game. “We’ve struggled in this ballpark, and we needed to have somebody go out and do something like that to turn it in the right direction.

In his post-game remarks, Kikuchi said that all of the team’s pitchers need to pick up the slack after top starter Marco Gonzalez (forearm strain) was placed on the 10-day disabled list earlier in the day.

“I think not just myself, but the entire staff, definitely needs to step up,” Kikuchi said, according to The Seattle Times. “We need to go out and go deep into ballgames ー an extra inning, or even just an extra out. I think we need to have the entire staff all just step up and contribute until Marco comes back.”

Seibu’s Wakabayashi Showcases Speed on Basepaths

Saitama Seibu Lions rookie outfielder Gakuto Wakabayashi broke a team rookie record for stolen bases in April, by swiping his ninth base on Friday, April 30 against the Chiba Lotte Marines.

The 23-year-old leads the club with 12 stolen bases.

Wakabayashi surpassed the mark of eight steals by a first-year player in one month, which was set by the Lions’ Hiromichi Ishige (September 1991) and matched by Sosuke Genda (May 2017 and July 2017).

Giants’ Takahashi Improves to 5-0

Yomiuri Giants left-hander Yuki Takahashi (5-0) became the first NPB pitcher to record five wins this season on April 28 in a 7-3 victory over the Tokyo Yakult Swallows.

The 24-year-old Ibaraki Prefecture native is in his third season with the Giants.

He also became the second Giants southpaw in team history to win his first five starts in a season, joining Hisanori Takahashi, who did so in 2007.

Rugby

Playoff Match Canceled due to COVID-19 Breakout

Twenty-two Ricoh Black Rams players have tested positive for COVID-19 this week.

As a result, the club’s Japan Rugby Top League quarterfinal match against Suntory Sungoliath on May 9 has been called off, it was announced on Saturday, May 1.

Initially, the Black Rams reported nine positive coronavirus test cases on Wednesday, April 28. Two days later, the team announced 13 additional cases, prompting the Japan Rugby Football Union to cancel the quarterfinal fixture at Showa Denko Dome Oita.

Because of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Black Rams don’t have the required 23 players to field a team for the playoff clash.

Due to the positive tests, Ricoh announced precautionary measures to deal with the COVID-19 cluster.

“We are instructing all players and staff to suspend team activities, wait at home, and work from home,” the team said in a news release on its website. “For positive persons, we are providing appropriate medical treatment under the guidance of the public health center, and we are currently identifying close contacts.”

In the opening round of the Japan Rugby Top League playoffs, the Black Rams beat the Toshiba Brave Lupus 27-24 on April 24.

Basketball

Watanabe Grateful to Have a Job in World’s Best League

Toronto Raptors forward Yuta Watanabe recently penned a thoughtful essay for The Players’ Tribune, which appears on the website’s English and Japanese editions.

In the essay, Watanabe’s blue-collar work ethic and dedication to his craft are chief characteristics of his insights.

“There are only 450 players who have the opportunity to play in the best basketball league in the world,” Watanabe wrote. “I’ve heard it said that the total number of basketball players in the world is something like 450 million, so it’s quite literally a one-in-a-million chance to play basketball in the NBA. After years of hard work and making countless sacrifices, I finally made it. So as long as I’m on an NBA court, there is no garbage time – it doesn’t matter if it’s a minute or even a second. There is no guarantee that I’ll be able to play in the next game, so every moment is a chance to make my mark. That’s the reason why there is no ‘garbage time’ in my dictionary.”

Read the full essay here

Wyverns’ Randall Leads B. League in Scoring

Yamagata Wyverns star Andrew “Scootie” Randall is No. 1 in scoring (23.7 points per game) among the 36 teams in the B. League’s first and second divisions. The 31-year-old small forward is also averaging 8.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.5 steals in 52 games for the Wyverns, a B2 club.

The Wyverns (29-29), led by Serbian head coach Miodrag Rajkovic, have qualified for the B2 playoffs via a wild-card berth.

Kumamoto Volters point guard Kaito Ishikawa is first in assists (8.9) in B1 and B2. He dished out a season-high 19 assists on April 4 against the Fighting Eagles Nagoya.

Soccer

Frontale Pound Grampus in Key Match of the Week

Kawasaki Frontale hammered home the point that they are the J. League’s premier team in a 4-0 road victory over second-place Nagoya Grampus on Thursday, April 29.

Leandro Damiao played a pivotal role in the rout, scoring two first-half goals and adding an assist in the match at Toyota Stadium. The Brazilian provided the assist on Frontale teammate Reo Hatate’s opening goal in the third minute.

Frontale maintained their unbeaten start through 13 matches, with 11 victories and two draws.

Grampus have nine wins, two draws and two losses.

“We’ve been playing well all season,” Damiao was quoted as saying by Kyodo News. “We really studied their defense and prepared ways to apply those things we do well in breaking them down.”

RELATED STORY:
[JAPAN SPORTS NOTEBOOK] Kawasaki Frontale Remain in Championship Form to Kick off 2021 Season


Quotes of the Week

“I’m so happy. I wasn’t particularly thinking about competing against my old team, but the park is familiar to me and that helped. There are so many things I need to work on, but I was helped so much by the support from my teammates.”

ーHanshin Tigers southpaw Chen Wei-Yin on being a winning pitcher in an NPB game for the first time since 2011 on April 29. The Tigers defeated the Chunichi Dragons 6-2. Chen, who pitched for the Dragons from 2005-11 before moving to MLB and plying his craft for the Baltimore Orioles (2012-15), returned to NPB last season. He was winless in three decisions for the Chiba Lotte Marines.

“I shall not march in the parade of nations under a flag steeped in my people’s blood.”

ーMyanmar freestyle swimmer Win Htet Oo wrote on his Facebook page earlier this month, Kyodo News reported on April 26. His decision to skip the Olympics is a protest of the military crackdown on the nation’s people in the aftermath of a February coup. 

“I see the Tokyo Olympics as the culmination of my 20-year career as an IJF [International Judo Federation] referee. But I’m also ready for a possible cancellation. … I will have no regrets either way.”

Akiko Amano said in an interview with Reuters in a feature story about her being selected as Japan’s lone judo referee for the Tokyo Games.



Editor’s note: Interested in submitting a news item for possible inclusion in the Japan Sports Notebook? Send an email with relevant information to e.odeven@japan-forward.com, or JAPAN Forward’s comment’s page  or Facebook page and look for future editions of Japan Sports Notebook on our website.

Author:  Ed Odeven

Follow Ed on JAPAN Forward’s [Japan Sports Notebook] here on Sundays,  in [Odds and Evens] here during the week, and Twitter @ed_odeven.

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Ed Odeven is a longtime sports journalist who previously worked for The Japan Times as its chief basketball reporter for nearly 14 years. He also covered a wide range of other sports for the newspaper, including at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2012 London Games. A graduate of Arizona State University, Odeven worked for several newspapers in the Grand Canyon State before moving to Japan. He has freelanced for dozens of media outlets around the world.