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A gesture, a shock, a record

Games action gets underway with footballers taking the knee, US losing and a 13-goal game

Players taking the knee to highlight racial injustice ahead of the women's football match between the United States and Sweden yesterday. It is the first time the gesture has been seen at an Olympics.
Players taking the knee to highlight racial injustice ahead of the women's football match between the United States and Sweden yesterday. It is the first time the gesture has been seen at an Olympics.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

TOKYO • The sports programme at the Tokyo Olympics finally got under way yesterday, largely without spectators.

After a 13-year absence, softball returned to the Olympic stage.

In the first competitive act of the Games, host nation Japan thrashed Australia 8-1 in Fukushima, a venue chosen to underline Tokyo's original slogan as the "Recovery and Reconstruction Games" after the region was ravaged by the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster.

Later, the United States, behind the pitching of 38-year-old Cat Osterman, defeated Italy 2-0, while Canada beat Mexico 4-0.

The opening game of women's softball took place behind closed doors, the sound of the ball hitting the bat reverberating around Azuma Stadium as the players stood under the 30 deg C sun.

Among those watching were former US pitcher Jennie Finch and her eight-year-old daughter.

It was a bittersweet experience for the 40-year-old, with no guarantee that softball will be featured in another Games.

On softball, which made its Olympic debut in 1996 until the 2008 Beijing Games, Finch said: "It's crucial for our sport globally to be in the Games and have our presence, and the platform to showcase how great of a game it is."

Women's football also got under way as Britain, followed by the US, Sweden and Chile all took a knee at an Olympics for the first time to highlight racial injustice.

The gesture has been allowed by the International Olympic Committee as it does not contravene a rule that bars political statements.

However, the Americans' bid to pick up a fifth Olympic gold got off to the rockiest possible start at a closed-door Tokyo Stadium with a 3-0 trouncing against Sweden.

Seven of their past eight clashes had been decided by one goal or fewer, so the way the Swedes brushed aside the US via goals from Stina Blackstenius (two) and Lina Hurtig came as a shock to the system.

The Americans do not have the same squad as the one that lifted the 2019 Women's World Cup, but the same spine exists, including Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe, Julie Ertz and captain Becky Sauerbrunn.

On the upset, co-captain Rapinoe admitted it was a reminder of just how strong the women's game is, even though the US went undefeated in France two years ago.

"Sometimes, I feel like if ever we lose or tie or anyone gives us a game, it's like 'unbelievable' and that's really kind of offensive to every other team," said the 2012 gold medallist.

Turning her attention towards Saturday's crucial Group G game against New Zealand, who lost 2-1 to Australia, Rapinoe called it "do-or-die mode".

Unlike Tokyo and Sapporo, which have banned spectators, Miyagi prefecture allows a pandemic-restricted crowd to be present. They were treated to history as the Netherlands thumped Zambia 10-3 to record the highest-scoring football game in women's Olympic history and the most scored by a team in a match.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 22, 2021, with the headline 'A gesture, a shock, a record'. Subscribe