TOKYO - Gymnasts from four nations gathered in Tokyo on Sunday for a friendly meet aimed at helping to prove Japan can safely host the postponed 2020 Olympics even in an era of coronavirus.
Thirty gymnasts from Japan, the United States, China and Russia, including triple Olympic gold medalist Kohei Uchimura of Japan and 2019 World Champion Nikita Nagornyy from Russia, are taking part in the first international event at a Tokyo Olympic venue since the Games were postponed in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The one-off friendly event is seen as a crucial trial run for having international athletes travel to and compete in Japan safely during the Olympics, which will bring more than 11,000 athletes to Tokyo. A few international matches have been held in some sports recently, but they remain rare.
Organizers, one of whom confessed to some of the "worst stress of my career," are keenly aware their efforts are being closely watched by Olympics organizers.
They were alarmed last week when Uchimura had what turned out to be a false positive coronavirus test result.
Further tests later cleared him, and he said in an online news conference on Saturday that it had been a good experience.
"How regular can we make the irregular?" he said. "I think this is a good experience and really important for the Olympics."
Gymnasts undergo daily coronavirus testing, can move only between their hotel and the venue, and disinfect their hands on arrival at the gym, designed by Kenzo Tange for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Anyone entering is also sprayed with a disinfectant mist.
During a practice on Saturday, coaches wore masks and judges sat behind perspex screens. Gymnasts all brought their own chalk.
Up to 2,000 spectators will watch. Japan has successfully held stadium events with thousands of fans, but it is the participation of international athletes that is key this time.
"This is a good chance for Japan to promote to the International Olympic Committee that it can do this kind of thing safely," said Hirotaka Matsuoka, a sports marketing professor at Waseda University.
Japan remains less hard-hit by COVID-19 than many other large countries, with Tokyo on Saturday marking 294 new cases. Just under 2,000 have died.
(Reporting by Jack Tarrant and Elaine; Editing by William Mallard)