Returning to the fields of dreams

Playing at Koshien Stadium near Osaka is the dream of every young baseball player in Japan. The national high-school championships are major events on the Japanese sporting calendar, with tens of thousands of fans crowding into the stadium, and NHK televising every game. So, when organizers announced that this year's tournaments would be canceled, it was a devastating blow for players who had trained for years for the chance to take part. But now, organizers are trying to help them live out their dream in a different way.

Not since World War 2 has Koshien Stadium failed to host a spring invitational and a summer tournament. But the organizers said in March that they had to prioritize the health and safety of the players and cancel the spring event.

More than 30 schools had already received invitations to play, and news of the cancellation reduced some of the players to tears.
"It's a real shame," said the captain of one team. "We got this far… it's so disappointing. I think it will take time to clear my mind, but we'll have another chance this summer, so the whole team will work hard towards that."

But last month, the organizers called off the summer tournament too. They said it would be difficult to hold the regional preliminaries safely.

Players react to the cancellation of the annual summer baseball tournament.

Then, on June 10th, there was finally some good news. The 32 teams that should have been playing in the spring tournament will get their chance to play at Koshien after all, but in a new format.

They will head to the stadium in August, on the dates set aside for the summer championships, but instead of the usual knockout-style event, they will play a single friendly each. And the benches will have 20 players — two more than usual — to give as many students as possible the chance to take part.

"When I heard the news, I got goose bumps and felt very happy," says Hirose Tomoya, the captain of the Kiryu Daiichi High School team.

Gifu Shogyo High's captain Sasaki Tai said, "We'll try to remember how grateful we are and do our best at Koshien to show what we've been doing the past three years."

Koshien Stadium is the ultimate stage for Japanese high school baseball players.

The experience will be a little different to the one they had imagined. There won't be any spectators, and the teams will only be allowed to stay for up to two nights. Many will have a longer trip than usual, traveling by chartered bus rather than plane or bullet train to minimize contact with other people.

The head of the Japan High School Baseball Federation, Hatta Eiji, says they wanted to make good on their word and let the players have their chance in the famous stadium.

High school athletes back on track

The baseball tournaments are the most-watched high-school sporting events, but the competition that features the most athletes is actually the Inter-High School Championships. It is held every summer and winter and involves 6,000 schools facing off in a range of sports, including track and field, swimming, soccer, and judo.

In April, as the country was under a state of emergency, the organizers took the unprecedented step of canceling the whole thing.

They said regional qualifying rounds would be impossible because of the state of emergency, and the risk of infection during competition and travel to and from the venues was too high.

But after the state of emergency was lifted in May, athletes and coaches started calling for substitute events.

The bodies governing fencing, archery and wrestling all backed the idea and came up with new tournaments. On June 4, the Japan Association of Athletics Federations said it would hold a tournament in October for all athletes with national-level records.

Education and sports minister Hagiuda Koichi threw his support behind that decision and proposed holding the event at the new national stadium in Tokyo. The stadium was completed last year and will be the main venue for the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

Japan's new national stadium will host events at next year's Olympics and Paralympics.

"If competing at the national stadium can be a goal for high school students who have had a hard time due to the pandemic, the government will work to support it," he said.

For high-school athletes nearing graduation, the year has turned out very differently from what they had expected. But these new ways of organizing events, and competing in them, means their dreams don’t have to be dashed.