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2021-06-08

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¡¡¡¡Daily coronavirus tests. Hotel confinement. A lot of Nintendo time. The experience of Australia¡¯s softball team is a preview of a Games like no other.

¡¡¡¡The Australian national softball team waiting to take coronavirus tests at Narita Airport near Tokyo on Tuesday.?The Australian national softball team waiting to take coronavirus tests at Narita Airport near Tokyo on Tuesday.?Credit…Pool photo by Behrouz MehriMotoko RichDamien Cave

¡¡¡¡By Motoko Rich and Damien Cave

¡¡¡¡June 4, 2021

¡¡¡¡TOKYO ¡ª The Australian softball players who arrived in Japan this week for the last stage of their training before the Tokyo Olympics have spent most of their lives trying to reach the world¡¯s pre-eminent sporting event.

¡¡¡¡Now they will experience much of their Olympic moment confined to small hotel rooms.

¡¡¡¡The Australian women are the first team to touch down in the host country before the Games, which open in seven weeks. Their constricted arrival offers a preview of an Olympics like no other, held as much of the globe remains in the clutches of a deadly pandemic.

¡¡¡¡There are daily PCR tests. The players are confined to three floors of their hotel in Ota City, about two and a half hours from Tokyo in Gunma Prefecture, and use one elevator separated from other guests. They eat in their own dining room. Only six people are allowed in the gym at a time, so the 23 athletes have a rotating schedule. They are not allowed to visit local bars, restaurants or shrines, but they can gather in a hotel meeting room outfitted with a Nintendo Switch.

¡¡¡¡¡°We¡¯re the guinea pigs at this point,¡± said Tahli Moore, 27, who plays second base and outfield. ¡°We¡¯re showing it¡¯s possible, and we¡¯re showing it¡¯s really safe.¡±

¡¡¡¡As the Olympic organizers struggle to persuade a skeptical public that the Games won¡¯t become a superspreader event, the Australian softball players are a test case for an elaborate system of safety protocols intended to protect both the athletes and the Japanese public.

¡¡¡¡Image

¡¡¡¡Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announcing the extension of a coronavirus state of emergency last month.Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announcing the extension of a coronavirus state of emergency last month.Credit…Yuki Iwamura/Agence France-Presse ¡ª Getty Images

¡¡¡¡Even as the first of thousands of athletes arrive, nine prefectures in Japan are under a state of emergency in which restaurants and bars are asked to restrict hours and suspend alcohol service. Although deaths in Japan have remained lower than in other hard-hit countries, nearly three times as many people died from the coronavirus in the first five months of this year than did in all of 2020. The chief medical adviser to the government, Shigeru Omi, told a parliamentary committee this week that it was ¡°not normal¡± to hold the Games under pandemic conditions. And about 10,000 Olympic volunteers have quit.

¡¡¡¡In Ota, where the Australian players are training at a local field ¡ª the only place they are allowed to go outside the hotel ¡ª many residents said they had learned that the athletes were coming only after seeing television news reports about their arrival at Narita Airport near Tokyo.

¡¡¡¡¡°I didn¡¯t even know that Ota City was hosting the team until then,¡± said Takao Sekine, 68, owner of La Terrasse Creole, a Western-style restaurant that has had fewer customers in the last year than at any point in its 30-year history. If it wasn¡¯t for the coronavirus, he said, ¡°the Olympics and the Australian players coming here would have been great for business.¡±

¡¡¡¡Now, he said, he was concerned about a potential public health risk. Comparing the pandemic to World War II, he said: ¡°If American planes came flying over us, we could run away. But we can¡¯t run away from a virus you can¡¯t see. So people are very scared.¡± As a result, he said, ¡°my honest feeling when thinking about the world is that the Olympics should stop.¡±

¡¡¡¡Olympic organizers and Japanese government officials say they are confident that the Games can be held safely. Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, has said that at least 80 percent of athletes will be vaccinated by the time they arrive in Tokyo, and the president of the Japanese Olympic Committee told reporters this week that 95 percent of Japan¡¯s athletes would be vaccinated. (Among the general public, just 3 percent of Japanese have been fully inoculated.)

¡¡¡¡ImageJournalists waiting for the arrival of the Australian softball team at a hotel in Ota City on Tuesday.Credit…Kazuhiro Nogi/Agence France-Presse ¡ª Getty Images

¡¡¡¡Even without vaccinations, Japan has managed to keep infections from spiraling out of control. Schools have remained open and many people continue to use public transit, shop and attend sports and other cultural events. Masks are ubiquitous.

¡¡¡¡¡°We have been able to keep movie theaters open and still reduce infection cases,¡± said Makoto Shimoaraiso, an official in the government¡¯s Cabinet Secretariat. ¡°So we can definitely hold the Olympics while keeping infections under control.¡±

¡¡¡¡Despite the assurances, close to a quarter of the 528 communities that had initially signed up to host Olympic teams from abroad will no longer do so. Some towns have withdrawn their invitations. But in many cases ¡ª about 100 ¡ª international teams have decided not to come to Japan in advance of the Games because of coronavirus concerns, said Yasuhiro Omori, an official with the Cabinet Secretariat division that is overseeing the host town initiative.

¡¡¡¡Some of the towns are disappointed about the canceled visits.

¡¡¡¡Kamo, a city of about 25,000 residents in Niigata Prefecture in western Japan, had spent about 70 million yen ¡ª or close to $635,000 ¡ª building gymnastics training facilities for their scheduled guests from Russia. Hirokazu Suzuki, a sports promotion official in the town, said the gymnasts had canceled their plans to train there. ¡°We were shocked,¡± Mr. Suzuki said, ¡°but we also understood that there are people abroad who are scared.¡±

¡¡¡¡In Higashimatsuyama, a city of more than 90,000 people in the Tokyo suburbs, Yukio Ohtani, a city official, said it had agreed to host a delegation from Cuba. The city started serving Latin American foods like picadillo, ajiaco and flan during lunch in local public elementary and middle schools.

¡¡¡¡But the city withdrew its offer because officials at the local university where the Olympians were scheduled to stay and train said they felt uncomfortable allowing the athletes on campus when students were still restricted to attending classes online. ¡°We had prepared so much,¡± Mr. Ohtani said. ¡°But due to the coronavirus, it¡¯s understandable.¡±

¡¡¡¡ImageA mass vaccination center in Tokyo last month. Only 3 percent of people in Japan are fully vaccinated.Credit…Pool photo by Carl Court

¡¡¡¡For cities that do host athletes, the Japanese government has budgeted just over $115 million for extra protections against infection, said Mr. Omori of the Cabinet Secretariat. He said the host towns had agreed to test athletes for the virus daily, assign them to segregated floors of hotels, charter buses to ferry them to training facilities, and install plastic dividers between tables in dining halls.

¡¡¡¡Mr. Omori said the visiting teams must sign a form in which they promise not to make contact with the general public. With Japan currently barring most international travelers, Mr. Omori said, the athletes ¡°are being given a very special exception on the understanding that they follow the rules.¡±

¡¡¡¡In Ota, a city of 250,000 people, the Australian softball players and five staff members ¡ª all of whom are vaccinated ¡ª are finishing a four-day quarantine confined to their hotel. But the players said they had not noticed any surveillance of their movements. Other than guards outside the hotel, there does not appear to be any police presence to keep them locked down.

¡¡¡¡Chelsea Forkin, 31, a member of the national team since 2008, said the athletes were playing a lot of Mario Kart on the Nintendo console and eating mostly Western fare like eggs and bacon for breakfast and steak and pasta for dinner. Given polls that show the Japanese population largely opposes holding the Olympics, she said the team wanted to set a strong example and obey all safety protocols.

¡¡¡¡¡°We can¡¯t go outside and go for a walk, but that¡¯s OK,¡± Ms. Forkin said. ¡°We understand the rules and want to be respectful.¡±

¡¡¡¡ImageOlympic organizers and Japanese government officials say they are confident that the Games can be held safely.Credit…Hiro Komae/Associated Press

¡¡¡¡David Pryles, the chief executive of Softball Australia, said the team entourage included a well-being counselor to assist with mental health, along with a team doctor ¡ª resources it would not necessarily include for international competitions before the pandemic.

¡¡¡¡He said the restrictions on movement, which will continue into the Olympic Village ¡ª where food halls will have staggered schedules and drinking and partying will be discouraged ¡ª would be an enormous disappointment for many athletes.

¡¡¡¡Ms. Moore, the Australian second baseman, said the team¡¯s arrival in Japan was strikingly muted. There was no welcome party, and there will be no interaction with family or fans. The team plans to train, play, then leave.

¡¡¡¡¡°It¡¯s a business trip, basically,¡± she said.

¡¡¡¡Even the staff members at their hotel, she said, seem to be struggling with a mix of disappointment and resolve, as if they keep saying to themselves: Stay focused, stay safe, make the most of an imperfect event.

¡¡¡¡¡°They keep telling us to find our happiness,¡± she said, ¡°which we¡¯re taking on board.¡±

¡¡¡¡Motoko Rich reported from Tokyo, and Damien Cave from Sydney, Australia. Hikari Hida contributed reporting from Tokyo.

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¡¡¡¡NEW YORK (AP) ¡ª On a rainy morning at Belmont Park, boots are an absolute necessity to trudge through the mud at the construction site of the New York Islanders¡¯ new arena.

¡¡¡¡It¡¯s been a slog to get to this point, but brighter days are ahead.

¡¡¡¡After more than a decade of uncertainty about where the Islanders will play their home games, including an ill-fated stint in Brooklyn at an arena not built for hockey, they will open shiny, new UBS Arena this fall.

¡¡¡¡New York is playing this NHL postseason in the old barn that housed four Stanley Cup-winning teams during the early 1980s glory days and the new arena is being built to replicate Nassau Coliseum¡¯s raucous home-ice advantage.

¡¡¡¡¡°It¡¯s been a long time coming,¡± 29-year-old fan James Chryssos said. ¡°It¡¯s been incredible to watch it actually come to fruition. All the ups and downs from the Lighthouse Project to Barclays and all the craziness. Finally getting those shovels in the ground and then hopefully finally getting in the seats, it¡¯s going to feel real and that¡¯s a feeling that I can¡¯t describe.¡±

¡¡¡¡The Lighthouse Project was aimed at transforming the Coliseum before it was nixed by Nassau County voters in 2011. The Islanders moved to Brooklyn¡¯s Barclays Center in 2015 to play in a building with an unusual configuration; the scoreboard embarrassingly hung over a blue line instead of center ice.

¡¡¡¡Don¡¯t worry: UBS Arena will have a brand new video board in its rightful spot above the center faceoff circle.

¡¡¡¡And the Islanders will be in their rightful spot on Long Island, eight miles down the Hempstead Turnpike from Nassau Coliseum, centrally located among their most diehard fans. With a new, permanent Long Island Railroad station in the works and thousands of parking spots, senior vice president of sales Mike Cosentino said the team is weeks away from selling out season tickets.

¡¡¡¡¡°You can feel the excitement,¡± Cosentino said. ¡°And this was even before this team has started playoffs. It¡¯s pure enthusiasm for UBS Arena and the big move and having a forever home for our fans.¡±

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¡¡¡¡Leaving Nassau Coliseum is a difficult step for fans given the nostalgia. Not only is there the connection to the early ¡¯80s dynasty but it boasts an old-school atmosphere that doesn¡¯t exist much in the NHL anymore even with a relatively small capacity of 13,917.

¡¡¡¡¡°This is a throwback building,¡± coach Barry Trotz said. ¡°People are on top of you. They feel like they¡¯re all closer. They¡¯re all sitting on your bench, basically. And the new buildings have a vastness to it that doesn¡¯t quite feel the same.¡±

¡¡¡¡Not so fast when it comes to UBS Arena. Everything from acoustics and the low ceiling ¡ª only 3 feet higher than Nassau Coliseum, which opened in 1972 ¡ª to a big lower bowl surrounding the ice is designed to bring the noise.

¡¡¡¡¡°It was built for hockey and made for music,¡± said Peter Luukko, facilities chairman of Oak View Group, which manages the arena. ¡°We¡¯ll have some sound-absorbing panels for concerts but also the ability to be a great, loud barn for hockey.¡±

¡¡¡¡Nassau Coliseum has an atmosphere even a hated opponent can love. After scoring an overtime winner to silence Islanders fans Thursday night, Boston¡¯s Brad Marchand said: ¡°They were loud. They were loud tonight. I¡¯ll give them credit. They were loud.¡±

¡¡¡¡That loudness won¡¯t stop at the new building, which is expected to house roughly 17,000 for hockey and should be full to the brim when it opens in November. The famous ¡°Yes! Yes! Yes!¡± and ¡°Let¡¯s Go Islanders!¡± chants will follow.

¡¡¡¡Luukko, who has also worked for the Philadelphia Flyers, described the Islanders fan base as ¡°very Northeast¡± with a Long Island twist. He is proud of fans sticking through some adversity to get to this point.

¡¡¡¡¡°It¡¯s no secret that there was some lean years,¡± Luukko said. ¡°There were discussions of the team possibly even moving. No finality on a home. Just to see how that base has stuck together and, listen, this arena¡¯s going to sell out, it¡¯s just amazing.¡±

¡¡¡¡UBS Arena is set to have a supporters section like soccer stadiums ¡ª at the end where the opponent will be on offense for two periods ¡ª and all the bells and whistles that come with modern technology. Players will have high-tech tubs, a two-floor gym and a lounge. General manager Lou Lamoriello¡¯s input included making the home locker room smaller for camaraderie.

¡¡¡¡Fans will have the choice of 56 suites and amenities nonexistent at Nassau Coliseum. The old concourses that squeeze fans together will be replaced by open space at the new place with an entryway designed like Grand Central Terminal. The brick fa?ade matches nearby Belmont Park, which opened in 1905, and windows offer a view of the New York skyline.

¡¡¡¡Once at their seats, fans will be close to the ice like a throwback building of eras past.

¡¡¡¡Luukko said it was important that everyone from ice row to the top deck feel like they¡¯re in the game now that the Islanders will remain on Long Island.

¡¡¡¡¡°It brings stability to the franchise in terms of, ¡®OK now we do have that home, that permanent home,¡¯¡± he said. ¡°It gives the fans a place to go and that feeling certainly that the Islanders are going to be on the Island forever.¡±

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