UVic grad chosen to carry flag for Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony

A University of Victoria graduate will be one of two Canadian flagbearers on Friday for the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

Langford-based rugby player Nathan Hirayama and Ontario-raised basketball player Miranda Ayim, both 33, were named Canadian co-flagbearers Monday by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

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“It was definitely a shock. I was very surprised. It’s something I’ve never even dreamed of. It’s a massive honour,” Hirayama said in a Zoom call from Langford with Canadian media. “We have a responsibility as role models. It is not something anyone takes lightly.”

It’s the second time over the last three Summer Olympics that an Island athlete has carried the flag in the opening ceremony. Two-time Olympic medallist triathlete Simon Whitfield of Victoria performed the duty in 2012 at London.

“I’ve been watching the Olympics my entire life and understand the honour and privilege that comes with being the flag bearer,” said Hirayama, the leading all-time scorer for Canada in rugby sevens.

The moment will be especially poignant for Hirayama, who is of Japanese ancestry on his father’s side and is from Richmond.

“It’s a special time for my whole family,” he said. “[My parents] were surprised and shocked and very supportive.”

His father, Garry Hirayama, was born in Vancouver and also represented Canada internationally in rugby. Garry passed on his love of the game to Nate, and the two became the first father and son to suit up for Canada.

Nate Hirayama played in three World Cups for Canada following his Vikes career at UVic. He won two gold medals and a silver in the Pan Am Games in sevens and competed in three Commonwealth Games. But while this will be Ayim’s third Olympics, it is Hirayama’s first. The Canadian men’s rugby sevens team failed to qualify in 2016 for Rio, where the sport made its Olympic debut.

“It’s meaningful for our whole team after failing to qualify five years ago. To put in the work to qualify is really special … and we can’t wait for our opportunity to show the world what we can do,” said Hirayama.

Not that the pandemic has made it easy. Training was severely restricted at Starlight Stadium and Goudy Field, and in the Al Charron national indoor facility, due to COVID protocols.

“But we’ve been training hard and have so much belief in our group,” said Hirayama, who is among about 75 Island or Island-based athletes preparing to compete in the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

Fans aren’t allowed at Tokyo Olympic venues, so Hirayama and Ayim will carry the flag into a near-empty stadium for the ceremony, which begins at 3:30 a.m. Pacific on Friday.

“I’m sure it will be a different opening ceremony,” said Hirayama. “But it’s still such a special event and a sign of the beginning of something that has been in doubt over the last 16 months. It’s an exciting time.”

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com

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