SYDNEY (AFP) - Australia's softball team flew out on Monday (May 31) destined for Japan, where they will become the first overseas competitors to arrive for the coronavirus-plagued Tokyo Olympics.
The arrival of the 23-player "Aussie Spirit" squad on Tuesday constitutes a milestone for the Tokyo 2020 Games, which were postponed for a year over the pandemic and remain dogged by virus fears.
The squad and support staff have undertaken a series of Covid-19 measures including vaccinations and rapid PCR testing 72 hours before their departure from Sydney.
"We know it's going to be a bit of a long trip over, we know we're going to go through lots and lots of Covid testing," said player Jade Wall, as the facemask-wearing squad prepared to depart.
"But look, we're all prepared for it, we want to do everything that we can to make sure that we're safe when we get there and we're safe while we're in Japan as well."
Despite opinion polls indicating public opposition to holding the Olympics this summer, organisers are adamant that they will go ahead.
Softball Australia CEO David Pryles said it was a "huge" moment for the team, which had their Olympic preparations interrupted by the pandemic.
"We haven't played together since February 2020, the final of Australia Pacific Cup in Sydney, so it was always imperative to go early to get the necessary games as a team," he told AFP.
They will be based in Ota City in Tokyo, where they will live in a team "bubble" to minimise the risk of contracting coronavirus.
Several parts of Japan, including Tokyo, are under a state of emergency until nearly a month before the July 23 opening ceremony to combat a fourth wave of infections.
Despite the virus risk, Pryles said all the players had been keen to travel to Japan and would receive extensive support on the ground.
"The only reason why (they) would be leaving the hotel is to go to the ballpark and back. They will be having less daily contact with the public than they would in Australia," he said.
Softball has not appeared at the Games since 2008 and will not be played at Paris 2024, making Tokyo the only shot at Olympic glory for many players.
"This is their lifelong dream... and I'm really proud of all their effort to get them this far," Pryles said. "These girls have sacrificed a lot."
Australia have medalled at every Olympic softball competition and are hoping to maintain their record.
Wall said the team was "hungry" for success and not focused on the unusual conditions that lie ahead.
"We know that we've got one goal in mind, and everyone's on board," she told reporters at Sydney airport.
The team will play a series of warmups against Japanese opposition before reducing their squad to 15. They will open their campaign against the hosts on July 21.