Australian softballers win local hearts before Japan Olympics opener | Kieran Pender

Australia’s softballers are a team of firsts. They were the first foreign team to arrive in Japan, flying in early last month to train ahead of the Olympics. On Wednesday morning, they will contest the first event of Tokyo 2020, with an opening-round encounter against the host nation. And they are the first Australian Olympic team to develop a local fanbase, who will be feeling mixed emotions when the two sides meet in Fukushima.

“The support of the locals has been excellent,” says Australian national team coach Laing Harrow. “The Japanese hospitality has been incredible.” Harrow says the team has been inundated with gifts since arriving.

Australia’s softballers, nicknamed the Aussie Spirit, have been based in Ōta, a city 80km north-west of Tokyo. The city has been a frequent host for the Australians, who have trained in Ōta in 2018, 2019 and again since June. “We are always warmly welcomed over here,” says vice-captain Clare Warwick. “We’re loving it.” Harrow describes Ōta as his team’s “home away from home”.

The feeling is mutual. “Ōta citizens were very welcoming,” says Koichi Koizumi, Ōta bureau chief for Jomo News, the major newspaper of the local region, Gunma. “They wanted to watch the Australian players close up. If there was no Covid-19, they would have been cheering in loud voices.” Koizumi says that up to 400 locals watched practice games of the Australian team, and even peered through fences during private practice.

The local mayor, Masayoshi Shimizu, was effusive with praise when he met the team at a practice session last month. “You’re so cool,” said the politician. “I’ve seen the Australian team a few times, you guys are really cool. Thanks to all of you, Ōta City has become famous. I appreciate it.”

All of which poses a dilemma for locals when their adopted team face the home nation on Wednesday. “Ōta citizens are looking forward to the match,” says Koizumi. “They expect Japan to win the gold medal and Australia to win the silver medal. Some [Ōta] citizens are attached to the [Australian] team.” But Warwick shrugs off the suggestion that the Spirit might have any domestic support against Japan. “They are pretty loyal,” she says.

Women holds sign at airport.
The team has received a warm reception on every visit to Japan. Photograph: Issei Kato/AP

Softball is returning to the Games this year for the first time since the 2008 Olympics. The sport, which features women’s teams, alongside baseball, with men’s teams, were dropped for London and Rio, but have made a return in baseball-obsessed Japan. “Baseball is very popular here,” says Koizumi.

The Spirit have a proud Olympic record – the Australians are one of only two teams to have medalled in every Olympic softball competition, since the sport made its debut in 1996. The Australians won bronze in Atlanta and Sydney 2000, silver in Athens 2004 and then bronze in Beijing (the United States have won three gold medals, while Japan took gold in 2008). The sport will be absent again at the Paris Games in three years’ time, but is expected to be included at the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles.

“It is a challenge from a continuity and funding perspective – it hurts,” says Harrow of his sport’s on-again, off-again Olympic status. “A lot of girls are going to retire after this Olympics, but we have to prepare, develop pathways and get ready to go again for 2028.”

After a long break between drinks for the Spirit, and with yet another delay between Olympic outings on the horizon, the competition in Japan – which will conclude with a gold medal match in Yokohama next Tuesday – has added significance. “It has been a long wait,” says Warwick, a utility player from Canberra. “It’s time – it’s beyond time. We’re ready.”

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The Australians travelled to Japan early to ensure plenty of time together after a turbulent past 16 months. “We hadn’t been able to come together as a team as much as we would have liked to,” says Warwick of the past year. “So we always value the opportunity to come into camp and work on the things that we can’t do in our separate states – strategy, teamwork. It has been very valuable.”

The Covid-induced travel restrictions also mean that the Spirit have not competed internationally since the pandemic began. While the team have been busy with practice matches in Ōta, their form against international rivals remains an open question. But after falling agonisingly short of Olympic gold on four separate occasions, the Australians will open the Tokyo 2020 Games with high hopes.

“You can’t come in wanting anything less than gold,” says Warwick. “We are striving for that, we have been preparing for that, that’s the goal we want to achieve. We haven’t had much competition, so who knows where everyone else is at, but we’re going for gold.”

Even if that means breaking the hearts of their newfound local supporters when Australia face Japan on Wednesday morning. “That’s the plan,” the vice captain admits. “I’m sure they’ll be forgiving.”