Olympics Updates: U.S. vs. Canada Softball, Covid, Protests and News from Tokyo

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Current time in Tokyo: July 22, 10:46 a.m.

Outside the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo. The decision to hold events without spectators has proved divisive.
Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

The opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics is still a day away, and there’s already been a major upset. But the drama hasn’t been limited to the field.

Organizers are still struggling to reassure residents that the thousands of arriving athletes won’t worsen the spread of Covid-19 in Tokyo. And a new rash of cases has sidelined more players and teams, including Mexico’s entire baseball squad, which is now in quarantine back home and waiting for clearance to travel.

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And while only two sports — soccer and softball — have officially started play this week, there are already signs that players will take advantage of rules that allow for more activism and protests before the start of a game. On Wednesday, members of four women’s soccer teams took a knee before their matches.

The U.S. women’s soccer team began the tournament the way it had ended the 2016 games in Rio: by losing to Sweden.

Back then, the quarterfinal loss cost them a chance at the gold medal. This time, the 3-0 defeat on Wednesday ended the team’s streak of 44 straight games without a loss. The U.S., which has won four gold medals, was one of the favorites to win it all, coming off a title in the 2019 World Cup.

The U.S. side now has two days to regroup before its next match, on Saturday against New Zealand. That’s not much time, and that game and Tuesday’s match with Australia are likely must-wins if the U.S. women want to collect enough points to qualify for the next round, where they could face powerhouses like Britain, Brazil and the Netherlands.

The games have already been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Japan, which had put in place tight restrictions over the past year, wanted to make sure that these Games went off without a hitch after having delayed them a year. So the organizers made some big moves, including barring spectators, which has proved divisive. But the steps have done little to assuage the concerns of people across Japan, where numbers of cases are rising.

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Among athletes, officials and others working at the Games, 75 people have tested positive for the coronavirus as of Wednesday, including six athletes, according to Tokyo 2020’s database. That tally does not include those who tested positive before arrival in Japan. Two players on Mexico’s baseball team tested positive before the team’s scheduled departure to Tokyo, forcing the team into quarantine in Mexico City. Several players, including some from the U.S., will miss the Games after positive tests.

Just two weeks ago, the English men’s soccer team grabbed headlines when its players knelt to highlight racism before games in the Euro 2020 tournament. While the team lost the championship to Italy, it helped highlight causes that were important to the players and drew the ire of some politicians in England.

That should have been a signal of what to expect at the Olympics, where the organizers relaxed rules, allowing players to protest before games. Protests are still banned during play or at the awarding of medals. So far, the women’s soccer teams from Chile, the United States, Sweden and Britain have taken a knee.

And viewers should prepare for more protests on Friday at the opening ceremony and over the coming weeks of events, according to Tommie Smith, who famously raised a fist to highlight the oppression of Black Americans when he was awarded the gold medal for the 200 meters in track and field in Mexico City in 1968.

Read the New York Times interview with him on what to expect.

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The 2020 games haven’t even officially started, and we are already talking about the host for 2032: Brisbane. It’s the third-largest city in Australia, located on the country’s east coast near the surfing meccas of the Gold Coast. It’s the third time Australia will host the games.

The decision to name Brisbane as the 2032 host probably didn’t come as a surprise to one person: John Coates. He’s one of the vice presidents for the International Olympic Committee, which wrote the new rules for selecting a host. He also happens to head the Australian Olympic Committee, the group that pitched the bid.

Read Tariq Panja’s profile on Coates and how he led the charge to bring the Games back to Australia.

Kelsey Harshman of Canada and Haylie McCleney of the United States during Thursday’s game.
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Credit…Jorge Silva/Reuters

It’s Thursday at the Olympic Games, or as it is officially known, “Day Negative 1.” (The opening ceremony is on Friday.)

The fire hose of sports that will start spewing on Saturday is still but a trickle, but there are several events of note.

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The Tokyo morning features three more softball games. The U.S. won its opener on Wednesday over Italy by just 2-0, so a stronger offensive performance will be sought against Canada (1-0) on Thursday at 9 a.m. (8 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday). Mexico-Japan and Australia-Italy follow.

Then in the Tokyo afternoon and evening, soccer resumes, this time the men instead of the women. The United States did not qualify for the men’s tournament, which is made up mostly of younger professionals.

The highlights of the eight games are Mexico-France in Tokyo at 5 p.m. (4 a.m. Eastern on Thursday) and Brazil-Germany in Yokohama at 8:30 p.m. (7:30 a.m. Eastern on Thursday). In the 2016 Games in Rio, Brazil beat Germany in the gold medal game in a penalty shootout.

Credit…Jorge Silva/Reuters

After a 13-year absence, softball has returned to the Olympic stage, with one frustrating difference: The games are being played on baseball fields rather than ones for softball.

Fans and players alike expressed disappointment across social media this week. Among the main differences is that a softball field is smaller than a baseball field, usually with an infield entirely composed of dirt. Baseball diamonds are made of a mix of dirt and grass or artificial turf.

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Others, however, are less bothered.

“I don’t care what the field looks like, we’re happy it’s back & we’ve been waiting a very long time,” Danielle O’Toole Trejo, who plays for Mexico’s national team and is also a player in the Athletes Unlimited pro league in the U.S., wrote on Twitter. “Our play WILL NOT change. We’re GOOD enough to adapt.”

In both the 2004 Athens Games and the 2008 Beijing Games, the host cities built softball fields as part of their Olympics infrastructure.

Still, Jennie Finch, a former U.S. pitcher and Olympic gold and silver medalist, said playing on baseball fields is normal, adding that she played on baseball fields many times throughout her career.

For softball, the moment is big: It first became an Olympic sport in 1996, and it appeared in each Summer Games through 2008, after which it was dropped.

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It has a growing global footprint, and in the U.S., it is a competitive collegiate sport without a major league home. Last August, softball was the inaugural sport in Athletes Unlimited, but even that season was only six weeks long.

“Our sport needs this,” Finch said in an interview this week. “It’s crucial for our sport globally to be in the Olympic Games and have our presence and have the platform to showcase how great of a game it is.”

Ona Carbonell competing in Gwangju, South Korea, in 2019. 
Credit…Clive Rose/Getty Images

The Spanish artistic swimmer Ona Carbonell is expressing her “disappointment and disillusionment” that she has been told she cannot bring her son to Japan for the Tokyo Olympics while she is breastfeeding him.

Carbonell said in an Instagram video this week that she would not be bringing her son, Kai, who is nearly a year old, to the Games, and that she had been made to choose between her family and her Olympic goals in artistic swimming, the sport formerly known as synchronized swimming.

“Well, when Kai was born, I realized that I was getting fit and I could reach the Olympic Games in Tokyo, the first thing I asked was if I could bring Kai with me as I was breastfeeding him, and they said no,” Carbonell said in Spanish in the video as she breastfed her son.

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“A few weeks ago, some female athletes started posting about this on social media,” she said. “The subject was to choose between family and breastfeeding or to participate in the Olympic Games.”

“We were told this was not compatible,” she said.

Carbonell, 31, is competing in her third Olympics. She won a silver medal in the duet competition and a bronze medal in the team competition in London in 2012, and placed fourth in the duet competition in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

She said that she and her coach petitioned the organizers of the Tokyo Games to allow her to travel to Japan with Kai. When she heard back about two weeks ago, she said, she was told that the conditions had been set by the Japanese government.

Olympic organizers barred spectators from most events earlier this month, after a new state of emergency was declared in Tokyo in response to a sudden spike in coronavirus cases. The International Olympic Committee did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Carbonell’s video.

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“The conditions imposed are that Kai and Pablo would have to stay in a hotel,” Carbonell said in the video, referring to the boy’s father, Pablo Ibáñez, “and we wouldn’t know how far it is until we’re there.” She said they would not be allowed to leave the hotel for the duration of their time in Japan. The Olympic opening ceremony is on Friday and the Games run through Aug. 8.

“For me to go breastfeed Kai whenever he needs it during the day, I would have to leave the Olympic villa, the team’s bubble, and go to their hotel,” she said. Doing so, she said, would risk her teammates’ health.

In a message accompanying the Instagram video, she said that while she had received “countless expressions of support and encouragement to go to Tokyo with Kai,” she “wanted to express my disappointment and disillusionment that I will finally have to travel without him.”

Canada and the United States faced off on Thursday after each won their first game of the tournament.
Credit…Jorge Silva/Reuters

The first competitions began on Wednesday in Japan and were set to continue Thursday with softball and men’s soccer games. Because of the 13-hour time difference with Tokyo, the Thursday events started Wednesday night in the United States.

Here are some of the top games to watch:

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All times are Eastern.

  • U.S. and Canada at 8 p.m. on Wednesday on NBC Sports Network.

  • Japan against Mexico at 11 p.m., on NBCSN.

  • Italy against Australia at 2 a.m. Thursday on NBCSN.

  • Mexico against France at 4 a.m. on USA Network.

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  • Brazil against Germany at 7:30 a.m. on USA Network.

The opening ceremony is scheduled for Friday night in Tokyo. But the time difference with Tokyo means it will be Friday morning in the United States.

NBC will have a live morning broadcast of the ceremony, starting at 6:55 a.m. Eastern time. Savannah Guthrie, the anchor for “Today,” and NBC Sports’ Mike Tirico will host the ceremony.

Similar to years past, the network will air a packaged prime-time version of the ceremony at 7:30 p.m. Eastern on Friday.

In addition to NBC, Olympic events will be shown on the Golf Channel, NBC Olympics, NBC Sports Network, Telemundo and USA Network. Events will also be streamed on NBCOlympics.com, NBCSports.com and Peacock, the network’s streaming platform.

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After the opening ceremony, the Tokyo Games will stretch across 16 days, culminating in the closing ceremony on Aug. 8.

Sweden celebrated its third goal against the United States.
Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

CHOFU, Japan — Five years. That is how long it had waited for this game.

Five years since the United States women’s soccer team’s hopes for an Olympic gold medal at the 2016 Rio Games were dashed by Sweden. Five years since a defeat that forced the Americans to look in the mirror and ask hard questions about their age, dominance and future.

Five years of waiting, only to end up right back in the same place.

The United States opened the Tokyo Olympics on Wednesday exactly where it ended the Rio Games five years earlier: reeling from a humbling, embarrassing defeat to Sweden.

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Back then, it was a loss on penalties in the quarterfinals. This time, it was not nearly as close: Sweden dominated the United States, 3-0. Back then, Sweden had bunkered down and frustrated the Americans. On Wednesday, it simply dominated from one side of the field to the other.

“Did we expect this result tonight? No,” U.S. forward Megan Rapinoe said. “It’s frustrating, and it’s frustrating that it’s Sweden.”

“I don’t remember the last time we gave up a goal,” she added. “So to give up three is not great.”

Defender Kelley O’Hara acknowledged before the game that she and her teammates had been pining for another shot at the Swedes at the Games. “It’s what we’ve waited now five years for, to be back here,” she said.

They just never expected it to go like this.

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Striker Stina Blackstenius delivered a goal in each half for Sweden, a glancing header in the 25th minute and a point-blank finish in the 54th that felt like a just reward for a dominant performance at the tip of a Sweden attack that had the Americans on their heels almost as soon as the game began.

The United States tried everything to turn the tide. Positional tweaks to try to aid a midfield that was routinely overrun. Substitutions to refashion a largely toothless attack. Reinforcements to bolster a defense that was first stretched and then cut apart.

Even the most reliable of veterans brought on to help seemed to have little effect. Carli Lloyd and Julie Ertz — in her first appearance in months — came on at halftime, but Sweden soon doubled its lead. Rapinoe was inserted to offer a bit of menace on the wing, but it never materialized.

Tommie Smith, center, and John Carlos raised their gloved hands in protest at the 1968 Olympics. 
Credit…Associated Press

When the American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists on the medal stand at the Mexico City Games in 1968 to protest the oppression of Black Americans, they gave voice to generations of the athletes eager to speak their minds, even as the International Olympic Committee and athletic federations try to curtail what they consider political demonstrations.

While the U.S.O.P.C. said in December that it will no longer penalize athletes who protest, the I.O.C. reaffirmed that protests during Olympic events or the medal stand are prohibited. That rule will be tested when the Tokyo Games open on Friday, Smith said in a recent interview, because athletes everywhere have been awakened in the year since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

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Women’s soccer players for Britain, Chile, Sweden and the United States knelt before their games on Wednesday, which fell under a relaxed I.O.C. rule that allows for demonstrations before the start of competition.

In a wide-ranging discussion following the release of “With Drawn Arms,” a documentary about his life, Smith said it was fruitless for the I.O.C. to try to muzzle athletes.

“It’s a rational thought that there’s going to be some type of change,” he said. “I think within the next three weeks, we’re going to see some change in something. I don’t know from who. That’s why the future is so important.”

Advertisers have spent more than  billion to run spots on NBC and its streaming platform.
Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

The Olympics have long been an almost ideal forum for companies promoting themselves, with plenty of opportunities to nestle ads among the pageantry and the feel-good stories about athletes overcoming adversity.

But now, as 11,000 competitors from more than 200 countries convene in Tokyo while the coronavirus pandemic lingers, Olympic advertisers are worried about the more than $1 billion they have spent to run ads on NBC and its Peacock streaming platform.

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Calls to cancel the more than $15.4 billion extravaganza have intensified as more athletes test positive for Covid-19. The event is also deeply unpopular with Japanese citizens and many public health experts, who fear it will become a superspreader event.

The Olympics are already damaged goods,” said Jules Boykoff, a former Olympic soccer player for the United States and an expert in sports politics at Pacific University in Oregon. “If this situation in Japan goes south fast, then we could see some whipsaw changes in the way that deals are cut and the willingness of multinational companies to get involved.”

Panasonic, a top sponsor, will not send its chief executive to the opening ceremony, which is scheduled for Friday. Neither will Toyota, one of Japan’s most influential companies, which also said it had abandoned its plans to run Olympics-themed commercials in Japan.

In the United States, marketing plans are mostly moving ahead.

For NBCUniversal, which has paid billions of dollars for the exclusive rights to broadcast the Olympics in the United States through 2032, the event is a crucial source of revenue. There are more than 140 sponsors for NBC’s coverage on television, on Peacock and online, an increase over the 100 that signed on for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.

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“Not being there with an audience of this size and scale for some of our blue-chip advertisers is not an option,” said Jeremy Carey, the managing director of the sports marketing agency Optimum Sports.

Chris Brandt, the chief marketing officer of Chipotle, said that the situation was “not ideal” but that the company still planned to run a campaign featuring profiles of Olympic athletes.

Television has attracted the bulk of the ad spending, but the amount brought in by digital and streaming ads is expected to rise. Several forecasts predict that TV ratings for the Olympics will lag those for the Games in Rio and London, while the streaming audience will grow sharply.

Ad agency executives said companies were checking in for updates on the Covid outbreak in Japan and might fine-tune their marketing messages accordingly.

“Everyone is a little bit cautious,” said David Droga, the founder of the Droga5 ad agency, which worked on an Olympics campaign for Facebook that showcases skateboarders. “People are quite fragile at the moment. Advertisers don’t want to be too saccharine or too clever but are trying to find that right tone.”

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Lucy Bronze of Britain took a knee before a match with Chile in Sapporo.
Credit…Masashi Hara/Getty Images

Britain’s women’s soccer team became the first athletes to take advantage of the loosening of the International Olympic Committee’s decades-long prohibition against expressions of protest.

Just before kicking off their 2-0 win over Chile, players on Team GB dropped to one knee in a protest to promote racial justice in a manner that has become common places on soccer fields in the United Kingdom and elsewhere over the past year. Chile’s players joined the demonstration as well, and players from the United States and Sweden also knelt before Sweden’s 3-0 win later Wednesday.

Such an action would have led to severe sanctions had the rules not been changed in the lead up to the Tokyo Olympics.

The gesture, which spread across the sporting scene after the killing of George Floyd 14 months ago, is likely to be repeated throughout the games as athletes across the spectrum have pushed for greater rights of expression. Those calls led to the organizer of the Olympics to water down Rule 50 of its charter that banned any “demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda.”

Still, for some athlete groups the I.O.C.’s change of stance has not gone far enough. Athletes will not, for example, be able to express their protests on the medal podium. The I.O.C.’s rules also allow individual sports federations to retain the ban. FIFA, soccer governing body, has said it has no problems with player protests at the Games. The same goes for track and field. However, swimming’s leaders have said they will not countenance any form of protest on the pool deck which, according to the president of its governing body, should remain “a sanctity for sport and nothing else,” where there should be “respect for the greater whole, not the individual.”

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The hodgepodge of regulations raises the possibility of some athletes being sanctioned for gestures that others will have made.

“There is not really a ‘one size fits all’ solution,” I.O.C. President Thomas Bach said before the Games.





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