Japan’s sports world puts itself on hold in fight against coronavirus

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In a united effort, the Japanese sports world has introduced a drastic range of self-imposed restraints to combat the coronavirus outbreak ahead of this summer’s Tokyo Olympic Games.

Sports organizations nationwide are heeding a call to postpone, cancel or otherwise modify big events over coming weeks to mitigate the spread of the pneumonia-causing virus, which has resulted in around 900 cases of infection in Japan, many of which were linked to a quarantined cruise ship docked in Yokohama.

The J.League, Japan’s top soccer competition, took the unprecedented step Tuesday of becoming the first professional league in any sport to suspend official matches in the country.

Made in tandem with a government request, the decision initiated a domino effect across other major sports including baseball, rugby and sumo.

The J.League’s governing board opted to delay 94 matches in the top two tiers scheduled until March 15 to help alleviate a situation chairman Mitsuru Murai called “somewhat of a national crisis.”

While the first round of the 2020 J.League regular season played out as scheduled last weekend, Murai said the decision to postpone future matches was made in response to analysis from a government panel of medical experts that the next two weeks would be a “critical” period in determining how far the virus spreads.

On Thursday, the Japan Racing Association decided that all central government-sanctioned horse races will go ahead but will be run at empty race tracks for the foreseeable future.

JRA races are primarily held on Saturdays and Sundays and the change is effective this weekend.

JRA races, none Grade-1, between Saturday and March 15 will take place in the Nakayama, Chukyo and Hanshin racecourses.

Also, horse races held on and after Thursday at local government-operated tracks in Oi, Nagoya, Kochi, Saga and Banei Tokachi will also be held without spectators.

Request from Abe

At a Wednesday meeting of a government task force dealing with the outbreak, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe asked organizers of large sports and cultural events to consider postponing or canceling them over the two-week period to minimize the risk of transmission.

Rugby’s Top League followed suit by postponing 16 games slated on March 7 and 8, while basketball’s B-League later joined the ranks in postponing 99 games across its top two divisions until March 11. Nippon Professional Baseball decided to hold its 72 remaining preseason games in empty stadiums.

NPB Commissioner Atsushi Saito lamented having to make the “bitter decision” of barring fans from preseason, or regular season, games for the first time in the league’s history. He did not confirm whether Opening Day would go ahead as scheduled on March 20.

The Japan Sumo Association will deliberate Sunday as to whether the March 8-22 Spring Grand Sumo Tournament in Osaka can proceed. It will weigh the possibility of staging it in an empty arena or canceling it — a move virtually unprecedented in the sport’s long history.

The head of Oguruma stable, former ozeki Kotokaze, cautioned, however, that even if it does open as scheduled, “the tournament has to be cancelled if even one wrestler gets infected with the virus.”

Scores of other events, including domestic boxing bouts, the T-League table tennis finals and a charity golf tournament raising money for the reconstruction of Okinawa’s historic Shuri Castle, have also been postponed or called off. Others, like the men’s V-League volleyball final, will play out in front of empty stands.

The threat of the virus, which originated in China and has spread to over 30 countries, has also delayed training for Olympic volunteers and may result in the downsizing of the Olympic torch relay, stoking worries that the Games’ schedule could be impacted.

The International Olympic Committee, and the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic organizing committee, have given repeated assurances the Games will be held as scheduled despite growing health concerns and an increasing number of qualifying events worldwide being postponed or cancelled.

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that Dick Pound, the IOC’s longest-serving member, said organizers will likely cancel the games — if virus concerns linger — rather than postpone or relocate them, and that such a decision could come as late as the end of May.

Japan’s Olympics minister Seiko Hashimoto later dismissed the remarks, citing the IOC’s explanation that Pound’s comments are not its official view.

The Olympics are scheduled for between July 24 and Aug 9, with the Paralympics to follow from Aug 25 to Sept 6.

While the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the Japan Sports Agency and the Japanese Olympic Committee have yet to issue restrictions on holding competitions, domestic event organizers, leagues and teams began ramping up countermeasures against the virus earlier this month.

Organizers of Sunday’s Tokyo Marathon will limit entry to elite athletes, barring some 38,000 others from taking part. A similar decision was made for the Nagoya Women’s Marathon on March 8, while the open Nagoya City Marathon on the same day was cancelled.

In women’s golf, the LPGA of Japan Tour announced it will hold its season-opening tournament on March 5-8 without fans, following the cancellation of three tournaments in Asia on the American LPGA Tour.

Before NPB’s announcement, the Yomiuri Giants had planned to play two preseason games against the Yakult Swallows this weekend behind closed doors at Tokyo Dome, Japan’s only baseball venue with an air-supported roof that requires constant ventilation to maintain its structure.

At events which do allow spectators, fans are being asked to abandon longtime traditions to do their part in curbing the spread of the virus.

All of Japan’s pro baseball clubs have temporarily prohibited the mass balloon launches by fans in the seventh inning, and again upon their team winning, while rugby’s Top League axed its post-game high-five exchanges between players and fans.

Before postponing matches, the J.League had asked fans to halt cheering practices such as singing or linking shoulders, while spectators of all sports have been advised to wear masks, avoid contact with others and practice good hygiene.

The economic impact of postponing and cancelling events that attract tens of thousands of spectators, as well as how leagues will rearrange their schedules, while also dealing with the disruption caused by the Olympics, remains uncertain.

Among other developments, starting Thursday, the Japan Keirin Autorace Foundation will not admit any fans into venues hosting keirin cycling or speedway motorcycle races and has set no timetable for when normal operations will resume.

Powerboat racing, known as kyotei, will also be held without crowds between Friday and March 15.

Wagers on horse racing, keirin racing, speedway motorcycle racing and powerboat racing — the four sports on which betting is legal in Japan — can only be placed via the internet or telephone. Ticket windows will be closed.

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