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Photo: Ina Fried/Axios

It's not the start that organizers had once imagined, but the delayed 2020 Olympics are underway with softball and women's soccer beginning competition Wednesday ahead of Friday's opening ceremonies.

Why it matters: Originally scheduled to take place in 2020, the Olympics remain in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Games are being played without spectators and a number of athletes have already had to withdraw from competition after testing positive for the coronavirus.

Driving the news: In the first event to take place in host city Tokyo, the U.S. women's soccer team is playing Sweden in a match that kicked off moments ago.

On the ground: As a credentialed reporter, I am one of only a couple dozen reporters in a nearly empty Tokyo Stadium designed to hold tens of thousands. It's an utterly surreal experience.

  • There was pre-game music and an announcer introducing the starting lineups, but little else of the fanfare that normally accompanies the global sports gathering.
  • Both teams took a knee before the game began in what is expected to be the first of many political statements by Olympic athletes.
  • A recording counted down from 10 and, with that — and the referee's whistle — the game was underway.
  • You can hear the players talking to one another without amplification as it is basically the only sound during play, save for a little noise being pumped in that sounds like something between white noise and a real crowd.
  • You won't find concessions or souvenirs, though maps placed around the stadium offer directions for the spectators who were originally expected to fill the stands.

Between the lines: The match itself has added meaning for the U.S. team, which was ousted by Sweden in the quarterfinals of the 2016 games in Rio.

"It seems kind of rich that we get to play them first game of this Olympics," U.S. captain Becky Saurerbrunn told reporters this week. "I'm really excited about that."

The big picture: Softball also began Wednesday, 175 miles away in Fukushima, with host Japan defeating Australia 8-1 and the U.S. defeating Italy 2-0, as American pitcher Cat Osterman returned to international competition by pitching six scoreless innings. Monica Abbott pitched the 7th inning for the U.S. squad, earning the save.

  • Five other women's soccer matches are taking place elsewhere in Japan Wednesday.

Update ... 4:55am ET: Sweden, which have dominated the opening minutes of play, scored in the 25th minute to take a 1-0 lead.

5:17am ET: Sweden have continued to dominate, but at the half it remains 1-0.

5:42am ET: Still outplaying the U.S., Sweden have scored another goal in the 54th minute to take a 2-0 lead.

6am ET: The score now matches the play — a blowout — as Sweden notches a third goal in the 72nd minute.

6:30am ET: And it’s final, Sweden tops the U.S. 3-0, putting pressure on the team to excel throughout the rest of the group stage to advance to the medal round.

For the full wrap up on the stunning loss, click here.

Go deeper

A game review, with one less string attached

Screenshot: Marvelous/Grasshopper Manufacture

It’s unclear if the upcoming Nintendo Switch releaseNo More Heroes 3” is good or bad, but an outcry over its review embargo raised a red flag.

Driving the news: A restriction that would have blocked critics from reviewing the game until nine hours after it went on sale was altered last night in a reminder of how fraught the game-reviewing process tends to be.

Stephen Breyer formally announces retirement from Supreme Court

Photo: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Justice Stephen Breyer on Thursday sent a letter to President Biden formally announcing his retirement from the Supreme Court.

What he's saying: "I enormously appreciate the privilege of serving as part of the federal judicial system ... I have found the work challenging and meaningful," Breyer said.

COVID created an epic U.S. trade gap

Chart: Axios Visuals. Data: Census Bureau/Bureau of Economic Analysis

The details of the blockbuster fourth quarter GDP report released Thursday morning tell a vivid story of how the underpinnings of the world economy have been reshaped by the pandemic.

One example: In the arithmetic around U.S. economic output, trade acted as a more severe drag last year than it has in a generation.

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