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[JAPAN SPORTS NOTEBOOK] Will Local Spectators Be Allowed at Tokyo Olympics? We Should Know Soon

While Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has said that he hopes to see people sitting in the stands during competition, Shigeru Omi, the government’s coronavirus adviser, has stated it would be safer without spectators.

Ed Odeven

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Sprinters run during the Ready Steady Tokyo test event, which was held behind closed doors, on May 9 at the New National Stadium.

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Just over a month remains before the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics. Meanwhile, all the focus is on the newly released Version 3 of the Playbook ー official rules and procedures for all activities tied to the Summer Games. And that underscores just how much it is a work in progress for local organizers.

The Olympics officially start on July 23, although some sports events actually begin earlier, and the Paralympics begin August 24. At the same time, elements of the strategy to stage the Olympics and Paralympics during a global COVID-19 pandemic have changed.

For instance, overseas spectators were barred from attending the delayed Tokyo Games earlier this year, and a final decision on whether Japanese residents will be permitted to enter Olympic venues is expected to be made on Monday, June 21. 

On Monday, Tokyo 2020 officials are scheduled to meet with International Olympic Committee and International Paralympic Committee leaders to discuss the issue.

While Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has said that he hopes to see people sitting in the stands during Olympic competitions, Shigeru Omi, the government’s coronavirus adviser, has stated publicly that holding the Olympics without spectators is the safer option.

Omi and other health experts released a report on Friday, June 18 that acknowledged there is an inherent risk involved with allowing crowds at the Tokyo Games.

They didn’t sugar-coat their conclusion: “There is a risk the movement of people and opportunities to interact during the Olympics will spread infections and strain the medical system.”

Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto, however, supports holding Olympic events with spectators.

“Given that other sports events are being held with spectators, I think it’s also Tokyo 2020’s job to continue to look for ways to understand and lessen the risk of infections at the Olympics until we’ve exhausted all the possibilities,” Hashimoto told reporters on the same day.

In related news, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike on Saturday, June 19 ordered all public viewing sites in the nation’s capital to be closed during the Olympics.

Earlier this month, Yoyogi Park, which was scheduled to be a public viewing site, was transformed into a COVID-19 vaccination site instead.

“I believe these are necessary measures, when looking from various perspectives, for a successful Olympic and Paralympic Games,” Koike was quoted as saying by Reuters following a meeting with Suga on June 19.

Indeed, there are debates playing out in the public sphere and behind closed doors.

The lifting of the state of emergency in Tokyo and six other prefectures on June 20 will ease some restrictions and public pressure on the Olympic organizers. (Case in point: since April 23 in Tokyo, eating establishments have not been permitted to serve alcohol; now restaurants and bars will be permitted to serve liquor until 7 p.m.) However, other limitations are set to remain in place (eateries and drinking establishments must close at 8 p.m.).

Soccer

Onaiwu Notches Hat Trick in Japan’s Rout of Kyrgyzstan

Ado Onaiwu scored three goals in the opening half of Japan’s 5-1 triumph over Kyrgyzstan on Tuesday, June 15 in a 2022 World Cup qualifier in Suita, Osaka Prefecture.

The Yokohama F. Marinos forward, who appeared in his first match for the Samurai Blue on June 11 in an international friendly versus Serbia, scored in the 27th, 31st and 33rd minutes at Panasonic Stadium.

After the match, Onaiwu reflected on his performance.

“I am glad that I was able to earn results in the form of goals, but I still felt the need to create more opportunities for the team,” he said. “I will try to showcase a steady performance and continue to score goals in our future matches. Scoring goals is the best way to make a case for myself, but in order to do that against stronger opponents, I must raise the overall level of my play.”

With its eighth consecutive victory in 2022 World Cup qualifiers, Japan advances to the final round, which begins in September. The other 11 nations to advance are Australia, China, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Oman, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Syria, Vietnam and the United Arab Emirates.

“We must brace ourselves for the final round, because the competition level will increase exponentially,” Japan manager Hajime Moriyasu said. “There will be no margin for error, so we must stay focused and try to reach a higher level, both as a team and as individuals.”

“Leading to this point, we had many players involved and see our team develop through many variations of players,” he continued. “It will be extremely hard to select the squad for the final round, but I am confident that we will have a strong team regardless of who I choose.”

Myanmar Goalkeeper Seeks Political Asylum in Japan

Myanmar men’s national team goalkeeper Pyae Lyan Aung is seeking political asylum, his lawyer Yoshihiro Sorano said during a press conference on Thursday, June 17.

Japan played against Myanmar on May 28 in Chiba, entering the match as a substitute. Japan won 10-0.

Before the match, the 27-year-old made a symbolic anti-coup protest with a three-fingered salute, which displayed the words “WE WANT JUSTICE” in English during the playing of the Myanmar national anthem. 

Pyae Lyan Aung was scheduled to fly back to Myanmar with his teammates on Wednesday, June 16. But he didn’t meet them for departure at Kansai International Airport.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said Pyae Lyan Aung’s case will receive attention, and “[we] will hear his wishes and respond appropriately.”

“The situation in Myanmar remains uncertain and we understand many Myanmar residents in Japan have fear of returning home,” Kato was quoted as saying by The Associated Press.

Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi was deposed in a military coup on February 1, leading to widespread protests and hundreds of pro-democracy protesters being killed.

Baseball

Another Week of Big Highlights for Ohtani

Shohei Ohtani made his 10th start of the season on June 17, equaling his mound appearance from 2018, his MLB rookie campaign.

Ohtani improved to 3-1 with six solid innings against the Detroit Tigers in the Los Angeles Angels’ 7-5 home victory.

Batting in the No. 2 spot, he also walked twice and left the game with a 2-1 lead. The Angels then scored five runs in the seventh to take a commanding lead.

Ohtani allowed Jonathan Schoop’s solo homer in the sixth.

The Angels recorded a pair of double plays to give Ohtani a boost when he was on the hill.

“Those plays were huge for me,” Ohtani was quoted as saying by the Orange County Register. “I didn’t have my strikeout pitch tonight, so getting those plays on the defensive side was huge for me.”

Instead of relying on fastballs and split-finger fastballs, Ohtani increased the number of sliders he threw by a significant amount. Forty-one percent of his pitches were sliders, an increase of roughly 32% above his season average entering the game, according to the Orange County Register.

A day earlier, Ohtani clubbed his 19th home run of the year and picked up his 10th stolen base in the fifth of an 8-4 defeat to the Oakland Athletics. He reached base on a textbook bunt single and showcased his speed en route to first base, and after that when he stole second.

Ohtani is the runaway top choice in All-Star fan balloting among American League designated hitters through Monday, June 14 with 526,608 votes. Boston Red Sox DH J.D. Martinez is No. 2 (293,757).

The All-Star Game is scheduled for July 13 in Denver.

Ohtani belted two home runs on Friday, June 18 in the Angels’ 11-3 rout of the Tigers. Before the game, he said he would participate in MLB’s All-Star Home Run Derby, which will be held a day before the Midsummer Classic at Coors Field. 

Giants Slugger Smoak to Be Placed on Waivers

Yomiuri Giants first baseman Justin Smoak is leaving Japan to return to his family in the United States, the NPB club announced on June 17.

Smoak will be placed on waivers, meaning his two-year contract with the Giants will be torn up. In explaining his decision, the former MLB player informed team management that he wants to spend time with his family, which didn’t travel to Japan due to COVID-19 restrictions, according to published reports.

The 34-year-old Smoak appeared in 34 games in his first season with the Giants. He batted .278 with seven homers and 14 RBIs.

Carp’s Tamamura Earns First Career Win

Hiroshima Carp hurler Shogo Tamamura collected his first NPB career victory on June 18.

Tamamura (1-3) gave up two runs and six hits in seven innings. He struck out 10 and didn’t walk a batter in the Carp’s 7-4 decision over the Yokohama DeNA BayStars at Tokyo Dome.

Basketball

Watanabe Begins Pro Career with Golden Kings

Power forward Hugh Watanabe, who played college ball at the University of Portland (2018-20) and University of California, Davis (2020-21), will launch his pro career with the title-chasing Ryukyu Golden Kings.

The B. League first-division team announced on Friday, June 18 that it had finalized a deal with the 22-year-old for the upcoming season.

The 206-cm American-born Watanabe, whose mother is Japanese, is a member of the Japan men’s national team.

“Okinawa! First, let me say how excited I am to be a part of this team for the 2021-2022 season,” Watanabe said in a statement this week. “I’m looking forward to playing basketball, ‘island style,’ in front of all of you. Being from Hawaii, it feels like I already have a connection to Okinawa. Please lend us your support and we will fight to win the whole thing.”

In other team news, veteran big man Gary Hamilton reached a contractual agreement to play for the Golden Kings in 2021-22.

Hamilton, a naturalized Japanese citizen, suited up for the Ibaraki Robots last season. He averaged 3.9 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.5 assists and about 16.9 minutes in 39 games.

A former University of Miami (Florida) player, the 36-year-old Hamilton has played for  eight pro franchises in Japan, starting with the Shiga Lakestars in 2009-10.

Rossiter, Gibbs Leave Brex

Longtime Utsunomiya Brex players Ryan Rossiter and Jeff Gibbs, who helped the B. League squad win the league’s first title in the 2016-17 season and finish runner-up to the Chiba Jets in this past season’s championship, will not be back next season.

The Brex are rebuilding after a five-year run that included two trips to the B. League Finals.

Rossiter played for the Brex from 2013-21. Gibbs joined the club in 2016.

National Team Update

Rossiter was named to Japan’s 12-man squad for its final FIBA Asia Cup qualifier on Saturday, June 19 in the Philippines. Rossiter replaced Chiba big man Gavin Edwards as the national team’s naturalized player for its rematch with China. (Teams are allowed one naturalized citizen in FIBA-sanctioned events, including the Olympics.)

China defeated Japan 66-57 on Wednesday, June 16. 

Japan rebounded with a 108-68 victory over Taiwan on June 18, with Edwards scoring a team-high 21 points. Makoto Hiejima chipped in with 15 points in the rout.

In the Saturday rematch, China beat Japan 90-84, outscoring the Akatsuki Five 25-15 in the pivotal fourth quarter. Yuki Togashi led Japan with 17 points, while Rossiter had 15 points, six rebounds and three steals.

China outrebounded Japan 37-22.

Gymnastics

‘Twist Prince’ Shirai Retires

Kenzo Shirai, a member of Japan’s gold medal-winning men’s team at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, has decided to retire. The 24-year-old, known throughout the gymnastics world as the “Twist Prince,” made the announcement on Wednesday, June 16.

“I have no regrets. I’ve had a happy life as a gymnast,” Shirai was quoted as saying by The Yomiuri Shimbun.

Shirai earned three world titles (2013, 2015 and 2017) in the floor exercise, his specialty event. He also collected two silver medals at worlds in the event (2014, 2018).

The Yokohama native didn’t qualify to compete at the Tokyo Olympics, and he has closed the book on that phase of his sports career.

Now preparing to become a gymnastics coach at Nippon Sport Science University, Shirai is eager to share his knowledge with students.

“I will teach [students] what I’ve experienced,” he said, according to The Yomiuri Shimbun.

Golf

Momoko Ueda Announces Marriage on 35th Birthday

Pro golfer Momoko Ueda posted a message on Instagram on her 35th birthday to announce that she’s gotten married.

Ueda, who competes on the LPGA and JLPGA Tours, said her marriage registration on June 15 marked an important chapter in her life.

“I think this is the start of my second life,” she wrote. “I’m sure life is not a flat road. Even in such a case, I would like to work together to overcome it. I want [us] to respect each other and stay close to each other so that we can trust each other.”

Track and Field

1984 Olympian Masuda Named Tokyo Athletics Association Chief

Akemi Masuda, who competed in the women’s marathon at the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games, has been appointed the new chairperson of the Tokyo Athletics Association, it was announced on June 16.

Masuda has served as a TV commentator, dispensing opinions about marathon runners and events for many years.

The 1981 Asian Athletics Championships winner in the women’s 3,000 meters, Masuda didn’t complete the marathon in Los Angeles.

Looking ahead, Masuda said she is eager to make positive contributions to the Tokyo Athletics Association’s activities.

“From now on, [I will] give back,” Masuda said in a statement about her new leadership post. “I will do my best for everyone who loves athletics, including juniors, top athletes, and para-athletics. ”

Quotes of the Week

“I didn’t know how to say, ‘Hi.’ But he was so nice. He was so kind. He was so open. When I asked him a question, he was so honest. I hope I can ask him for more advice.”

Yuka Saso, the 2021 U.S. Women’s Open champion, after meeting her golf hero Rory McIlroy at Torrey Pines Golf Course in San Diego on June 15.


“That’s a great opportunity. A huge stage, a whole different ball of wax for him pressure-wise to have the world watching and to play against some of the best teams in the world. That’s a great experience for him.”

Tommy Sheppard, the Washington Wizards’ general manager, on Wizards player/Japan forward Rui Hachimura’s upcoming involvement in the Olympic basketball tournament, according to NBC Sports.

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.