20:44 17 March 2017
Olympics: IOC approves use of Fukushima stadium for 2020 Games
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea, March 17, Kyodo
Organizers of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics on Friday got a unanimous green light from the International Olympic Committee to hold part of the baseball and softball competitions at a stadium in Fukushima Prefecture.
Showing support for efforts to help rebuild the areas hit by the earthquake and tsunami disaster in March 2011, the IOC executive board approved the use of Azuma Stadium, a 30,000-seat outdoor venue located in the prefectural capital city of Fukushima, over 200 kilometers northeast of Tokyo.
"I think that this is a great opportunity to bring the spirit of the Olympic Games to this region which is so heavily affected by the tsunami in 2011," IOC President Thomas Bach said after wrapping up a two-day board meeting in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
"It's also an expression of solidarity of the Olympic movement with the people in this region who are suffering there from consequences of this disaster," said Bach, who had discussed the idea of holding baseball and softball in Fukushima Prefecture when he met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo last October.
The 2020 Games organizers proposed to include the 31-year-old Azuma Stadium as a secondary venue for baseball and softball, in addition to Yokohama Stadium which will be the primary venue, under the premise that it be renovated.
Among other candidate venues in Fukushima Prefecture that were considered earlier were Kaiseizan Stadium in Koriyama and Iwaki Green Stadium in Iwaki.
"I'm glad that Fukushima was chosen as a host as this will help cheer up the disaster victims. The IOC board agreed, saying it's a fantastic idea," said Japanese Olympic Committee President Tsunekazu Takeda.
The plan is to hold one preliminary-round baseball game and one preliminary-round softball game at Azuma Stadium, with a strong possibility on both being opening games for Japan.
"The theme of the games has always been the recovery of Japan. We want the games to bring joy to the people in disaster-struck areas," said Yoshiro Mori, head of the 2020 Games organizing committee.
Baseball and softball together were one of the five sports the IOC approved last August to add to the competition program for Tokyo. The two sports were last part of the Olympics in 2008.
In Japan, Fukushima Gov. Masao Uchibori could not hide his excitement upon hearing the news, expressing gratitude for the chance to convey a positive message to the world.
"This is a valuable opportunity to show the world how we are moving forward with the revitalization process," said Uchibori, who had said in December 2014 to then Tokyo Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe that Fukushima was interested in hosting some Olympic events.
Uchibori said he is keen on creating an atmosphere where the Olympic events held in the prefectural capital city will send out positive vibes in all directions across Fukushima.
"It will become one of the symbols of the Olympics of Recovery," he said, adding that he is feeling the weight of responsibility in continuing reconstructing and revitalizing initiatives.
Reika Utsugi, manager of the Japan women's softball team which aims to win the gold medal like it did at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, said at her squad's training camp in Chiba Prefecture, "I'm simply pleased. We want to play well so as to encourage and move people in the affected area."
In a related development, the Japan Softball Association announced Friday that Japan will host the United States in a three-game series on June 23-25. The first two games will be held in Sendai, another disaster-hit area, and the last one at Yokohama Stadium.
Meanwhile, Tokyo Games organizers are still negotiating with the World Baseball Softball Confederation over the competition format for baseball.
The former wants to split the six-team contest into two groups for the first round and the latter wants a full round robin among all six squads and one more stadium in the Tokyo metropolitan area to host some of the games.
"The competition format is not a matter for the IOC executive board to approve, so we will continue discussing it with the WBSC," Toshiro Muto, CEO of the 2020 organizing committee, said in Pyeongchang.
As for soccer, Mori said Kashima Stadium in Ibaraki Prefecture, located northeast of Tokyo and also affected by the 2011 disaster, is likely to be an additional venue at the 2020 Olympics as it is in line with the games' aim of contributing to the disaster-struck areas.
The Japan Football Association wants to add three more venues in addition to the previously approved six, but the organizers want just one more amid its cost-cutting drive.
"The national federation has requested more venues and we are talking with them about keeping it within the affected areas in principle. Ibaraki is one of the areas considered," Mori said.