Why Australia's softball players are the first athletes to arrive for Tokyo Olympics

·5-min read

What would you pack for a two-month international trip that includes the culmination of your athletic dreams?

“I packed a fair bit of food. Things that I know that I like from Australia — just in case there are some food choices here that I wasn't going to align with,” said Tamieka Whitefield, a 22-year-old on Australia’s Olympic softball team. “But other than that, because we're not going anywhere, like I just packed like tracksuit pants, and jumpers and leggings.”

Whitefield is one of 32 members of Team Australia — players and staff — who are in Japan over a month before the Tokyo Games are even scheduled to start, in search of some competition after a year sequestered in a country with some of the tightest restrictions on international travel.

She spoke to Yahoo Sports from a tiny hotel room in Ōta City, where she and the team will spend six weeks confined to three floors, plus the field where they’ll practice and play, until they can move into the Olympic Village on July 17. They each have individual rooms and share a gym, dining room and meeting room. There’s table tennis, and someone brought a Nintendo Switch.

“So Mario Kart has been an absolute hit,” Whitefield said.

Olympians on lockdown

The Australian softball team, known as Aussie Spirit, qualified for what was supposed to be the 2020 Summer Olympics at a tournament in China in September 2019, just a few months before the coronavirus pandemic forced sports on to the global backburner. Whitefield was playing in New Zealand when Australia closed its borders on March 20, 2020. She flew home and, while she was quarantining for two weeks, the Olympics were officially postponed for a year.

“As soon as it started getting really bad in Australia, we completely shut down,” she said. “Like every state, shut down.”

Australian softball players queue at the check-in counter prior to their departure for the Tokyo Olympics, at Sydney International Airport on May 31, 2021. (Photo by SAEED KHAN / AFP) (Photo by SAEED KHAN/AFP via Getty Images)
Australia's national softball team players prepared to depart for Tokyo on Monday. (Photo by SAEED KHAN / AFP) (Photo by SAEED KHAN/AFP via Getty Images)

The lockdowns worked, cases across the country plummeted. And in her native Queensland, in particular, restrictions were eased except for occasional days-long lockdowns to mitigate outbreaks. (At its worst, there were about 700 new coronavirus cases a day in Australia. In New York State alone, which has a few million fewer people, there were close to 20,000 new cases a day in January 2021.) But travel was difficult and the team was unable to get together for a full year. Instead, they worked out over Zoom, met virtually with members of the 2000 Olympic team, and focused on training for the mental aspect of the sport.

But as the rescheduled Olympics approached, they still hadn’t played a competitive game against another international team since the Asia Pacific Cup in January 2020.

“We've had camps and we've played each other, and we've done probably all we could in Australia," Whitefield said. "So we're over here to hopefully get some competition and play some games.”

Preparing for a long stay in Japan

The team, which is fully vaccinated, took COVID-19 tests before flying out. Three flights from across Australia converged in Singapore, and together they flew to Tokyo. There, they were tested again and met by a swarm of media.

“As soon as we walked off the plane, there were cameras and people everywhere,” Whitefield said. “I mean not even when we got out of customs, like as soon as we got off the plane, they were right there.”

The Olympics are not popular in Japan, where less than 3 percent of the population is fully vaccinated and cases spiked again as recently as mid-May. Somewhere between 50 and 80 percent of people polled oppose the Olympics, which are going ahead largely at the IOC’s insistence.

In the lead up to the pandemic, Aussie Spirit, which is used to softball games played in front of very few, if any fans, had plans to practice with the sounds of cheers pumped over speakers to prepare them for a presumably sold-out appearance at the Tokyo Games. Now, no international fans or family will be permitted to attend, and Japan is several weeks away from issuing a ruling on local fans. So in their last few months of training in Australia, the Spirit did something different: They practiced games without any cheering — just in case that was part of the COVID-19 protocol.

“It was really weird,” Whitefield said.

When Whitefield spoke to Yahoo Sports, the team had only been in Ōta City for 48 hours, still under quarantine, and hadn't yet been to the facility where they’ll train until kicking off the Olympic Games as the first event against host Japan. That should change this weekend, but they’ll still be under extremely strict limitations, traveling only between the hotel and the field and wearing masks any time they leave their individual rooms.

“It doesn't feel too bad just yet,” Whitefield said. “The excitement that we're finally here, at the moment, it's pretty good.”

She still has a bunch of TV to catch up on, which helps, and she hasn’t run out of snacks from home.

“Obviously because I’m Australian, I brought some Vegemite, I brought protein, I brought some two-minute noodles, some Weet-bix, and some chocolate too. Cadbury chocolate, of course.”

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