July 29, 2021 10:15:04 am
by Makiko Inoue, Motoko Rich and Andrew Das
For a few days, some Olympic soccer players have been treated to the rarest of privileges at the Tokyo Games: spectators.
While fans have been barred from the vast majority of venues as one of the measures to contain coronavirus infections, three host prefectures are still allowing a limited number of spectators at Olympic venues.
Over the past week, the bulk of the fans at Kashima Soccer Stadium, about 70 miles northeast of the Olympic Stadium in Ibaraki Prefecture, were schoolchildren, dressed identically in their summer uniforms and sitting two seats apart.
The stadium was by no means full: No more than 1,200 schoolchildren, chaperoned by teachers and school officials, were allowed into a venue that has a capacity of more than 40,000. Wearing face masks, the children were instructed that they could clap but never cheer out loud.
Of course, enthusiasm sometimes overtook them. At the match between the United States and Australia, played Tuesday beneath muggy skies, the children mostly followed the rules and kept quiet. But when Alex Morgan, a U.S. forward, sent a ball into the goal, a few shouts erupted. (The goal was nullified by an offside ruling, and the game ended in a 0-0 tie.)
Plans to bring in children as spectators predated the pandemic, and originally, many more students were to attend the Games. Close to 10,000 students from 53 schools in the prefecture originally applied for the student tickets. But after the Games were postponed by a year, many parents withdrew their children. Only about 3,400 students attended the soccer matches over three days.
Some parents decided the opportunity was simply too good to pass up.
“The Olympics are very special,” said Hiroyuki Onuma, principal of Kashima Fuzoku Junior High, who accompanied 60 students to the stadium Tuesday. “This probably will be the first and the last chance for these children. It will be a wonderful memory for them.”
Honoka Kikuta, 12, said she felt bad that more spectators were unable to attend.
“I think seeing a game in person is very special,” said Honoka, who brought an American flag to cheer on the U.S. team.
With the relative silence in the stadium, she could hear the players’ chatter on the field, although she did not understand the English words.
Go Saito, 14, said it had been more than a year since he set foot inside the stadium, where a local team, the Kashima Antlers, regularly plays.
“Some of my friends didn’t come as they were worried about infections,” he said. “I’m not worried. We are doing well in the prevention measures. And the Olympics are very special, and may or may not happen here only once in my life.”
For the athletes, the presence of somebody — anybody — in the stands was a blessing.
“It was wonderful to have some fans, to have somebody in the stands, clapping, cheering a little bit,” Morgan said after the match Tuesday. “It’s challenging to play in front of an empty stadium. So it was a nice surprise for us.”