Tokyo 2020: Fukushima to host Olympic events nine years on from nuclear disaster

Members of a baseball team pray for their coach who went missing during the Fukushima disaster.

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Fukushima nuclear power plant suffered triple meltdown

Baseball and softball events to be held in surrounding area during Tokyo 2020

Organizers hope events will aid regeneration

CNN  — 

It’s not uncommon for Olympic venues to fall into a state of disrepair after the Games have gone and the crowds have dissipated.

But Tokyo 2020 organizers are hoping for a role reversal, using the Olympic Games to help regenerate Fukushima – an area devastated by the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster.

On Friday, Tokyo 2020 president Yoshiro Mori announced Fukushima will stage Olympic baseball and softball matches.

“By hosting Olympic baseball and softball events, Fukushima will have a great platform to show the world the extent of its recovery since the disaster,” Mori said in a statement.

“It will also be a wonderful chance for us to show our gratitude towards those who assisted in the region’s reconstruction. And I’m sure the people of Fukushima are also looking forward very much to seeing Olympics events hosted there.”

The neighboring Miyagi prefecture, also hit by the earthquake and tsunami, will host the preliminary rounds of the Olympic football competition.

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Baseball is considered Japan’s most popular sport, with tens of thousands frequently flocking to watch the Nippon Professional Baseball league.

Japan has won three baseball medals since its introduction as an official Olympic sport in 1992, never failing to reach the semifinals. The game is back on the agenda for 2020, having been dropped after Beijing 2008.

The events will be held at the Azuma Baseball stadium, some 70 kilometers northwest of the ruined Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Renovated for the 2020 Games, the 30,000-seat venue will host Olympic matches in conjunction with the Yokohama Stadium in the Kanagawa prefecture.

The World Baseball Softball Confederation, which helped reach the decision, praised Mori and International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach, asserting the Olympic showcase could serve as a “vehicle to inspire hope.”

“It is a tremendous honor and a duty we take very seriously to be a part of something so meaningful,” WBSC president Riccardo Fraccari said, adding the power of sport could be harnessed to “shape a better world.”

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A different form of legacy

In a recent survey conducted by Tokyo newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, 88% of respondents said they supported the notion of hosting Olympic competition in areas affected by the events of 2011.

Robert Whiting, author of a Pulitzer Prize-nominated book about Japanese society seen through the lens of baseball, similarly praised the idea, telling CNN “it’s a good idea [and] good for Fukushima.”

“Some people have this image of the area as another Chernobyl when as I understand it there is no comparison,” said Whiting.

“I would like to see the government do more for the people who had to evacuate their homes. That should be the priority, but this is a step in the right direction.

“At least it will show people around the world that you don’t have to wear a Hazmat (protective) suit to play sports in Fukushima … Unless of course you want to play catch inside one of the nuclear reactors.”

But the fallout from the disaster – the worst nuclear catastrophe since Chernobyl in 1986 – is still being felt.

As recently as last year, tens of thousands were still living in temporary housing – intended to last just 24 months – while the Japanese government has spent in excess of $1.5 billion removing soil from the surrounding area, with hundreds of makeshift storage sites holding thousands of black bags containing radioactive material.

In March 2016, some 800,000 tons of highly-radioactive water sat in hastily-constructed tanks at the site, enough to fill over 300 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

While some experts estimate it will be 40 years before the site is completely safe, Bach downplayed the risk, telling reporters the decision presented “a great opportunity to bring the spirit of the Olympic Games to the region.”

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“It is an expression of solidarity from the Olympic movement to the people that are suffering there with the consequences of this disaster,” Bach added.