Tokyo Olympics kick off with soccer, softball

It’s not the start that organizers had once imagined, but the delayed 2020 Olympics are under way with softball and women’s soccer beginning competition Wednesday ahead of Friday’s opening ceremonies.

Why it matters: Originally scheduled to take place in 2020, the Olympics remain in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Games are being played without spectators and a number of athletes have already had to withdraw from competition after testing positive for the coronavirus.

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Driving the news: In the first event to take place in host city Tokyo, the U.S. women’s soccer team is playing Sweden in a match that kicked off moments ago.

On the ground: As a credentialed reporter, I am one of only a couple dozen reporters in a nearly empty Tokyo Stadium designed to hold tens of thousands. It’s an utterly surreal experience.

There was pre-game music and an announcer introducing the starting lineups, but little else of the fanfare that normally accompanies the global sports gathering.

Both teams took a knee before the game began in what is expected to be the first of many political statements by Olympic athletes.

A recording counted down from 10 and, with that — and the referee’s whistle — the game was underway.

You can hear the players talking to one another without amplification as it is basically the only sound during play, save for a little noise being pumped in that sounds like something between white noise and a real crowd.

You won’t find concessions or souvenirs, though maps placed around the stadium offer directions for the spectators who were originally expected to fill the stands.

Between the lines: The match itself has added meaning for the U.S. team, which was ousted by Sweden in the quarterfinals of the 2016 games in Rio.

“It seems kind of rich that we get to play them first game of this Olympics,” U.S. captain Becky Saurerbrunn told reporters this week. “I’m really excited about that.”

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The big picture: Softball also began Wednesday, 175 miles away in Fukushima, with host Japan defeating Australia 8-1 and the U.S. defeating Italy 2-0, as American pitcher Cat Osterman returned to international competition by pitching six scoreless innings. Monica Abbott pitched the 7th inning for the U.S. squad, earning the save.

Update … 4:55 a.m. ET: Sweden, which have dominated the opening minutes of play, scored in the 25th minute to take a 1-0 lead.

5:17 a.m. ET: Sweden have continued to dominate, but at the half it remains 1-0.

5:42 a.m. ET: Still outplaying the U.S., Sweden have scored another goal in the 54th minute to take a 2-0 lead.

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