By Shiho Tanaka
OYAMA TOWN, Japan (Reuters) - The Tokyo Olympics will go down in history as a Games almost devoid of spectators, but cycling fans on Saturday got the rare chance to see the athletes in person on the first day of full-fledged competition.
With the Japanese capital in its fourth COVID-19 state of emergency as infections surge, the organisers this month banned spectators https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/japan-set-declare-state-emergency-tokyo-area-through-aug-22-minister-2021-07-08 from all but a handful of stadiums and asked the public https://www.reuters.com/lifestyle/sports/tokyo-organisers-ask-public-stay-away-road-cycling-triathlon-events-2021-07-09 to stay away https://www.reuters.com/lifestyle/sports/japan-arranging-opening-ceremony-without-spectators-except-vips-paper-2021-07-06 from cycling, marathon and other outdoor events.
But on the day after the opening ceremony, thousands gathered to watch the men's road race https://www.reuters.com/lifestyle/sports/on-road-cycling-tokyo-olympics-2021-07-23 on a humid day with highs near 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit), where a late burst gave Ecuador's Richard Carapaz https://www.reuters.com/lifestyle/sports/cycling-ecuadors-carapaz-wins-gold-mens-road-race-2021-07-24 one of the first gold medals of the Games.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance," said Kayoko Fujita, 38, watching with her two little boys at the finish at the Fuji International Speedway in Shizuoka prefecture. "I think it's OK if you take proper infection-control measures."
Along the 234km race - stretching from western Tokyo through three other prefectures to the base of Mt Fuji - Japanese television showed crowds packed together on the roadside cheering. A race official vainly held a sign reading, "Please refrain from spectating on the roadsides during the event."
By contrast, at the finish the masked fans remained orderly at their seats in designated zones.
Excitement built, and fans and volunteers began clapping when the first finishers neared and hit the final circuit. As cyclists crossed the line, some spectators cheered, despite standing requests from organisers to refrain - an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Seats were unreserved but there was room to leave empty spaces between people, said Kazuma Okabe, 31, clutching a shaved ice snack as he watched with his wife. "The wind is blowing, so I think we can be pretty safe."
Haruhiro Aoyagi, 16, applied for tickets to several events but only won the chance to see the cycling, he said as he watched with his mother.
"It's a rare opportunity so I want to enjoy it."
(Reporting by Shiho Tanaka; Writing by William Mallard, editing by Pritha Sarkar)