Island athletes remain optimistic about competing in Tokyo Olympics

Former University of Victoria rugby star Nate Hirayama grew up idolizing hockey player Paul Kariya. Participating for Canada in an Olympics in Japan would be something personal and special for Hirayama and would have also been for Kariya because of ancestral links. Kariya lost his chance when a vicious cross-check in the NHL, just prior to the Olympics, kept him out of the 1998 Nagano Winter Games. Now Hirayama’s opportunity for the Tokyo Summer Games, already delayed once, hangs in the balance because of the pandemic.

Canada’s all-time points-leader Hirayama, centralized in Langford with the Canadian sevens program, is among the more than 75 Island or Island-based athletes preparing for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics this summer.

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All they can do is remain focused and continue training and ignore the wildly contradictory media reports about the Games.

Japan Olympic Committee chairman Yasuhiro Yamashita told Reuters on Friday that a story late Thursday out of London, that the Games would be cancelled, was “wrong and ridiculous.”

“We’re trying to be optimistic but it’s out of our control,” said Hirayama.

“From what I’ve read, by summer the Games can happen. We’re staying positive and planning as if they will happen. That’s all we can do.”

Hirayama said he has no safety concerns about travelling to Japan: “If it’s safe to go, it will be safe to play.”

Those thoughts were echoed by rugby sevens Canadian teammate Pat Kay of Duncan.

“It’s getting to crunch time. As of now, all things are a go,” said the Cowichan Secondary graduate.

“Obviously, what we expected heading into last year has changed. Nobody expected to be looking at an Olympics delayed by a year. But we’re committed and in a good space. Things will be getting to normalized by the summer.”

Infielder Emma Entzminger of Victoria is part of the Tokyo Olympics-qualified Canadian women’s softball team.

“You just live in the moment in training and take it day by day,” said the Lambrick Park Secondary graduate.

“I am optimistic about the Olympics taking place. Our attitude is that they will be happening. But it’s hard to know what they will look like.”

An increasingly likely scenario is a Tokyo Games without spectators, something sports fans are well acquainted with by now after viewing the NHL and NBA venues with tarps and signage covering the seats. Since 73 percent of the International Olympic Committee’s income is derived from broadcasting revenues, and another 18 percent from sponsors who rely on the broadcasting exposure from the Games, all that really needs to be staged in Tokyo is a made-for-TV type event. It would still be uplifting for the world, even more so considering the circumstances, and the athletes would adapt.

“If there are no fans, you will have to find motivation from elsewhere,” said Entzminger.

“But at that point, the athletes will just be grateful that it’s happening at all.”

Games on or Games off, the Tokyo Olympic hopefuls are already guaranteed to be athletes who will be long remembered because of what they went through. Unique situations have a way of doing that.

“The story will be memorable no matter what,” said Kay.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com

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