Clare Warwick has wanted to be an Olympian ever since she attended the Sydney Olympics as a spectator in 2000. Now she might get her chance. The 34-year-old and her teammates in the Australian softball squad touched down in Japan on Tuesday, making them some of the earliest competitors to arrive for the Tokyo Games.
“I remember watching a couple of my idols play,” says Warwick, the team’s shortstop. “I thought, ‘yeah I think I would like to give this a go,’ and that’s always been in the back of my mind over the years.”
The team’s arrival has been hailed as a major milestone for the Olympics, but it comes as critics call for the cancellation of Games amid Japan’s battle against a stubborn fourth COVID wave. On May 28, the Japanese government extended its COVID-19 state of emergency on Tokyo and several other areas until June 20. (The Olympics are scheduled to start on July 23.) Although new cases have declined in recent weeks, the country of 126 million is still recording around 3,000 cases a day.
The pandemic means this year’s Olympics will be unlike any other. Although there are some individual athletes already in the country—including runners from South Sudan—the Aussie Spirit softball team is one of the first squads to fly in. Their experience offers insight into what this year’s Games might look like for other athletes and support staff still intending to travel there from across the world.
“It’s not going to be the Olympics of the past and you know what? I think everyone’s made their peace with that,” Warwick tells TIME from the city of Ota, about 90 miles north of Tokyo, where the team is quarantining following their arrival in Japan. “If the Olympics goes ahead, that’s good enough for us and we’re happy to compete under any circumstances.”
COVID precautions at the Tokyo Olympics
Olympic COVID-19 protocols released in April emphasize frequent testing and isolation bubbles for athletes and coaches, if not strict quarantines or vaccinations. Fans from abroad have been banned, and an announcement on whether any Japanese spectators will be allowed is expected late this month.
The Australian softball team is taking additional precautions. All the team members have been vaccinated. They took a coronavirus test 72 hours before departing from Australia, another upon landing, and they’ll take a daily COVID-19 test while they’re in Japan. The team is now staying in a hotel under quarantine until Saturday, when they can start training outside—but other movements will be highly restricted.
Before the move to the Olympic Village on July 17, they’ll be confined to one floor of their hotel, where they’ll eat, sleep, attend meetings, and use a makeshift gym set up in a function room. They’ll only leave the hotel to travel by bus to training sessions or friendly matches. They will practice social distancing and wear masks most of the time.
“We know the eyes of the world are on us, because we’re the only team of any sport of any country in Japan at the moment, besides the locals, so we have to do everything right,” David Pryles, the CEO of Softball Australia, tells TIME.
The players say that they’re happy to comply with the restrictions. Warwick, a high-school teacher from the Australian capital of Canberra, says its a bit of an adjustment wearing a mask all of the time but “This is an opportunity for us, and it’s a massive opportunity, and everyone in the team…understands exactly what they have to do, and why they’re doing it.”
Warwick has visited Japan, and the city of Ota, several times before for training and competitions. But this time she says she plans to keep herself busy inside the hotel grading papers, talking with family and friends back home via Zoom, and catching up on her reading and Netflix. She says that several of the players have brought Nintendo Switch devices, and they’ve been competing against each other in Mario Kart.
“I’m going to miss being around the people and … going to get our favorite coffee and our favorite meals in the evening,” she says, adding that one of the things she likes to eat most in Japan is okonomiyaki, a savory pancake.
Opposition to the Tokyo Olympics
Detractors say that it’s too risky to hold the Games during a global pandemic. A Japanese doctors union warns that the Olympics—at which 15,000 athletes from over 200 different territories are expected—could be a super-spreader event and might bring global variants of the virus to Tokyo. Fears have been exacerbated by the country’s slow vaccine rollout: only about 9% of people in Japan have received one shot.
More than 70% of Japanese want the Olympics to be canceled or postponed, according to an April poll by Kyodo News. The Asahi Shimbun newspaper, an official sponsor of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, has called for the Games to be cancelled. Prominent Japanese have joined in the debate. Tennis star Naomi Osaka says she’s conflicted over whether the Games should go ahead because they might put people at risk, while SoftBank Group CEO Masayoshi Son has expressed concern, saying the country had “a lot to lose.” Olympic torch runners have been heckled by protesters, and about 10,000 volunteers have dropped out, presumably over virus fears. Training camps across the country have meanwhile been cancelled—either by worried local officials or sports teams themselves.
Despite the opposition, officials have insisted the Olympics will go ahead. A senior member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said last week that the event will be held “barring Armageddon.”
So the Australian softball team, which won three bronze medals and one silver in previous Olympics, is preparing to go for Gold. “Whilst being told the Games are on, we have to prepare the best we can to be podium-ready,” says Pryles, of Softball Australia.
For now, members of Aussie Spirit are focused on getting over their jetlag and getting into a good sleep routine, says Warwick. Once out of quarantine, they’ll play a series of warm-up games against Japanese softball clubs and Japan’s national team. Of the 23 Australian players now training in Japan, a team of 15 will be then picked to compete in the Olympics.
Pryles says that only two of the present squad members have played in the Olympics before. The sport made its first appearance at the Olympic Games in 1996, but it didn’t return until 2008 (when Warwick was a reserve player). It also won’t be included in the 2024 Olympics in Paris. So, for many of the players, including Warwick, this is the only shot at Olympic glory.
“I’m sort of at the end of my career. I played my first international game in Japan, and I’d love to play my last one here in an Olympic Games,” she says.
Pryles sympathizes. “Their lifelong dream is right there on the doorstep. They’ll do what it takes.”