Fans and gymnasts gather for Friendship and Solidarity meet in Tokyo

Teams lined up at the opening ceremony of the Friendly and Solidarity meet last Sunday 8 November.
Teams lined up at the opening ceremony of the Friendly and Solidarity meet last Sunday 8 November.

More than 2,000 fans watched thirty athletes from four countries take part in the first international sporting event to take place in a Tokyo 2020 Olympic venue since the Games' postponement in March.

It was a return to competition on Sunday (8 November) for 30 gymnasts from the United States, Russian Federation, People's Republic of China and hosts Japan.

Held at Yoyogi National Stadium, a venue which will host both Olympic and Paralympic events for Tokyo 2020, the Friendship and Solidarity meet was the first time an international sporting event had taken place in Japan amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

The event which was organised by the International Federation of Gymnastics (FIG) and hosted by the Japanese Gymnastics Association (JGA) was a showcase of international camaraderie.

"This is a competition of hope. Friendship and solidarity will lead us towards better days," said FIG President WATANABE Morinari back in October.

"Gymnastics will once again light up the Olympic Games in Japan next year. After a challenging period, we are delighted to bring Gymnastics back to the Japanese public by welcoming many of our stars to Tokyo and giving them the chance for an innovative competition on a global stage," he added.

Athletes take centre stage in Tokyo

Fans drawn to event as Olympic excitement builds

The meet - which was not a Tokyo 2020 event - drew 2,094 fans from all ages, with some even waiting outside the venue patiently from 9:30 a.m.

Present at the event were members from a fan group of Japan's UCHIMURA Kohei, who is currently the most-decorated male all-around gymnast.

The group, which consisted of over 20 members from across Japan, had been following the three-time Olympic champion's competitions closely, including his performance at All-Japan Senior Championships back in September.

Among the group was NAKANO Makiko, who shared her thoughts about the postponement of the Games back in March.

"We were shocked, because we never thought that the Olympic Games would be postponed but there is nothing we can do about that," she said. "Compared with ourselves, we were more concerned about the health of Uchimura, who we support. I think what we should do is to keep our faith and continue supporting him," she told Tokyo 2020.

Uchimura, was an obvious favourite at the competition, with a loud applause every time the 31-year-old stepped up to compete on an apparatus.

Inside Yoyogi National Stadium where 2,094 spectators watched from the stands as 30 gymnasts from four countries took part in the competition
Inside Yoyogi National Stadium where 2,094 spectators watched from the stands as 30 gymnasts from four countries took part in the competition

Also attending the event was NAKAYAMA Kazumi, who came along with her nine-year-old daughter who only started gymnastics two years ago. It was their first time watching a gymnastics competition at a stadium.

“I hope watching the athletes competing can further inspire her,” Nakayama said about her daughter.

The Friendship and Solidarity meet saw Olympians and World Champions competing including 2019 Men's All-Around gold medallist Nikita Nagornyy.

Nakayama believed Sunday’s event would be the first step towards hosting an Olympic Games under pandemic.

“If this event would go on without any problem and everyone can enjoy it, I think we will gradually be in a situation where it’s possible to host a safe Olympic Games."

Meanwhile, KUBOTA Taro, who bought tickets for several Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 events including gymnastics and wrestling, came as a sport fan.

“I came to watch this competition because I care about the Olympic Games. And because I used to practice gymnastics since junior high school. Uchimura will also perform today,” the 68-year-old said.

Minister for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Game HASHIMOTO Seiko, Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology HAGIUDA Koichi and Tokyo Governor KOIKE Yuriko were also in attendance.

'It was special to see everyone'

After the competition was over, athletes took photos with each other - Uchimura and Nagornyy proved popular among younger gymnasts who participated.

During the Closing Ceremony of the event, each nation had a representative speak about the competition.

“I am very happy to come back to a competition. It’s my great honour to compete with other high-level athletes," commented ZHANG Jin, a member of the women’s team that won bronze at 2018 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships. "I’d like to thank the FIG, the organiser and those who worked hard to make this event possible."

At the press conference following the event, Zhang said she was impressed by the lively atmosphere of the event and the passion of the spectators.

For Uchimura, it was also his first competition in almost two years after suffering numerous injuries since Rio 2016. He told those inside Yoyogi National Stadium that he thought the event "was a huge success".

“You could probably tell from the expression on our faces, but we had a great, great time," he said.

Yul Moldauer of the United States and UCHIMURA Kohei of Japan fist bump after receiving medals during the Closing Ceremony
Yul Moldauer of the United States and UCHIMURA Kohei of Japan fist bump after receiving medals during the Closing Ceremony

What followed was a powerful and emotional message from the star artistic gymnast as he asked everyone in Japan to work together to present a successful Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.

“Because of the pandemic, most of us couldn’t train or compete. It was nice not just to see each other again but to be able to share all the emotions.

"But the question we should be asking ourselves is not whether we can hold the Games or not - but how, and all of us need to put our heads together to make sure that it does go ahead. I want people to start thinking differently.

“I say this, however, knowing full well that it will not be easy. If we athletes and the public aren’t on the same page, I don’t think it will happen.

“But I’m certain there is a way to make it happen, and I ask everyone to stop thinking that it can’t happen."

With the Olympic Games on the horizon, the 2019 World Championships in October last year was the last major event for many athletes before competitions halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was almost a 'mini-Olympic Games' according to 2017 World Champion men's floor bronze medalist Yul Moldauer, as the powerhouse nations of artistic gymnastics came together.

"Thank you Japan for being such wonderful hosts, and we also want to thank the entire FIG for putting on such an amazing meet," the American gymnast said.

"It's been a while since we've all gotten to compete so being here and being with these other countries and other athletes is a special time for me and I'm sure them."

Through friendship and solidarity

During the Opening Ceremony, there was a surprise video message from International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach.

"Because of the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic we are all living with much uncertainty. In these difficult times we need the Olympic values of excellence, respect and especially friendship and solidarity more than ever.

"This is why the Friendship and Solidarity competition comes at a perfect time.

"With this competition, you [athletes] are also setting an example that sport can be organised safely even under the ongoing health restrictions.

"This is a very important thing for the entire world, giving us confidence in our preparations for future events - in particular of course, the postponed Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.

"What better demonstration than this, than celebrating Friendship and Solidarity in sport at the iconic Yoyogi National Gymnasium were so much Olympic history was made and will be made again next year."