School program spurs children’s interest in Olympic nations

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Children cheer on athletes at the prefectural Kashima Soccer Stadium in Kashima, Ibaraki Prefecture, on July 22.

About 4,700 students of high school age or younger had attended Olympic events as of Saturday, thanks to a school program that gave young people opportunities to see the Tokyo Games in person.

The program is believed to have spurred children’s interest in the participating countries as they watched sporting events at venues where spectators were allowed despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games arranged the program, in a bid to help children remember the Games. It initially planned to invite more than 1 million children, but ultimately had to implement the program only in Miyagi, Ibaraki and Shizuoka prefectures following the decision to hold Olympic events without spectators in the Tokyo metropolitan area and elsewhere amid the pandemic.

About 3,400 students from 21 schools in Ibaraki Prefecture, and teachers accompanying them, watched soccer games at the prefectural Kashima Soccer Stadium in Kashima from July 22 to 27. Although the soccer matches were among the events held without spectators from the general public, the 3,400 students were invited under the program.

One of the participating nations was Honduras, and Kashima municipal Hachigata Elementary School received a video message ahead of time from the Honduras Embassy in Japan thanking them for their support.

Children of the school cheered for the Honduran team, waving fans bearing the Honduran national flag and the Spanish message “vamos,” which means “let’s go” or “come on” in English. Maaya Yamamoto, a 10-year-old fifth grader, said: “It was good to see the players chasing the ball so energetically until the end. I got interested in Honduran culture. I want to read books and study about Honduras.”

Teacher Tomoko Fujii, 60, said: “The children were really happy to see the game. I think it broadened their minds to see first-class athletes working hard and people from different countries.”

A total of 141 children from four schools in Miyagi Prefecture had watched soccer games as of Saturday, while 1,194 students from 49 schools in Shizuoka Prefecture enjoyed cycling competitions. In Shizuoka Prefecture, more students were scheduled to watch cycling events on Sunday.

There have also been moves to increase the number of people interested in athletic competitions following the program.

Shizuoka Prefecture, the organizing committee and others plan to build a new course at the Cycle Sports Center in Izu — the venue for the Olympic mountain bike races — where people of all ages, including children, can ride bikes as a legacy of the event. They hope to hold a junior world championship there in conjunction with the international championships scheduled to be held in March next year.

An official of the prefectural government’s sports policy section said, “We want local elementary school students to see international competitions. We also want to hold events for children, to increase the number of people interested in cycling competitions.”

Schools and boards of education are now considering whether students should go to see events in the Paralympic Games, which will start on Aug. 24, under the program.