Japan's 'World Series' may hold the key to successful Olympics hosting

Tomorrow sees the start of what may be the most consequential staging of the Japan Series – that country’s answer to the World Series and the biggest sport event by far – in the tournament’s proud 70-year history.

The two teams involved, representing the Pacific and Central divisions of the 12-team Nippon Professional Baseball league, are the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks [going for four in a row] and the 22-time champions Yomiuri Giants who have not won the national title since 2012.

The Series is being played out against a complicated and politically charged background which has almost nothing to do with the teams themselves: coronavirus cases around Japan are rising again and this happened with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach visiting the country to express his confidence, not only in the staging of the postponed 2020 Olympics next summer, but that fans would be in the stands to see it.

So, while the Japan Series isn’t an official test event [although baseball is an Olympic sport] a success or failure in the staging of the Japan Series could have much wider consequences for Tokyo 2020 organisers and fan sentiment.

Thomas Bach, the IOC President, was in Tokyo this past week and spoke to reporters about their cautious but confident approach towards the staging of the delayed Games next July.

Nippon Professional Baseball officials have already successfully steered the league through a shortened 120-game season — and one postseason series — while avoiding the issues that plagued MLB and have been affecting the NFL, college football and other sports.

When Japanese baseball restarted in July after a three-month delay to the beginning of the season, Bloomberg TV was there to explain the new social distancing rules.

While the MLB’s World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays took place in a coronavirus bubble at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, the Japan Series will follow the conventional format with the Hawks and Giants travelling between two venues.

So the first test comes this weekend when a mass of  Giants, Hawks, NPB officials, media and surely some fans from Tokyo, Fukuoka and the surrounding areas descend on Osaka for the first two games. That city’s coronavirus task force website listed the prefecture as having over 200 cases each day from November 10-15, including 285 a week ago Saturday. By Monday the total dropped to 73. The Japan Series then travels to Fukuoka and possibly return to Osaka a few days later.

[The Giants’ famous home ground is the Tokyo Dome but with the season’s start being delayed by three months the Dome was unavailable due to scheduling conflicts so, ironically, Tokyo’s best-known sports franchise will play their home games in Osaka at the Kyocera Dome for Games 1 and 2 — and, if necessary, Games 6 and 7.]

As the Japan Times’ staff writer Jason Coskrey observed:

‘That all means concentrated use of public transport and hotels at a time when the country’s Go To Travel tourism campaign is under scrutiny with the virus seemingly gearing up for a third wave. So it will be educational, to say the least, to see how NPB pulls it off.

‘On one hand, the series is a potential virus powder keg and it’s not as though outbreaks haven’t already happened in baseball. The Hanshin Tigers dealt with an outbreak in September and the Chiba Lotte Marines had one in October. In MLB, the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals dealt with clusters within their organizations. NPB, aware of the risks, already has a public contingency plan in place if the Series has to be stopped early.

‘On the other hand, the Japan Series presents a nice test case for Tokyo 2020 organizers already riding high after a four-nation gymnastics competition, which featured athletes and staff arriving from outside Japan, went off without a hitch last weekend.’

One of the highlights of the four-nation gymnastics held earlier this month – which produced no coronavirus positive results – was triple Olympic gold medallist Kohei Uchimura’s performance on the horizontal bar in front of a rapturous masked and socially distanced home crowd

NPB already has strict virus protocols in place, and teams from both baseball and football’s J. League have been traveling around Japan since the summer restart. In sumo, a contact sport, the last two basho have been successfully staged with limited numbers of fans present, though all matches have been contested at Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan.

As Coskrey said: ‘A smooth Japan Series would give Olympic organisers more information to parse as they desperately search for methods to stage the games during the pandemic.’

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Charlie Charters is a former rugby union official and sports marketing executive turned thriller writer whose debut book Bolt Action was published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2010.
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