To Japan’s Olympic hopefuls, a year sounds like a long time

Linda J. Dodson

TOKYO — Japanese athletes who had been on training schedules designed to put them at the top of their game in July are now mulling whether to continue their quests for Olympic medals, or pack it all in and get on with their lives.

That is the conundrum many have been in since March 24, when the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were postponed.

Asuka Terada, who returned to the women’s 100m hurdles last year, has the full support of her family as she guns for a spot in the now 2021 Tokyo Games. She had retired from track and field in 2013, gave birth and later turned to rugby sevens. Now, at the age of 30, she wants to run hurdles again.

The coronavirus pandemic is not doing her any favors. The older an athlete is, the higher her risk of injury is. So, Terada is bathing herself in positive messaging. “I have been given the time to be better prepared,” she tells herself.

Last year, Terada set a Japan 100m hurdles record of 12.97 seconds at a meet near Mount Fuji. She also competed at the IAAF World Athletics Championships for the first time in 10 years, though she failed to advance out of the first heat.

All the while she has been sharing household and child-rearing chores with her husband; Terada’s family has been one of her major driving forces as she attempts to compete with the world’s top sprint hurdlers.

But now with another year of training ahead of her, she will have to reorganize her schedule to fit in enough practice time.

Before the Olympics were postponed, she was able to leave her child in a nursery school until 8 p.m. That gave her plenty of time to train. It was a generous arrangement, but one that will likely not be available when her daughter enters elementary school next year. “I have to think about using an after-school day-care program,” she said. “I have to move fast.”

To qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, Terada must get her 100m hurdles time down to 12.84 seconds. The Japan National Championships this coming fall is unlikely to be a qualifying event, but Terada is after as much experience as she can get.

“I didn’t compete in many races last year,” she said. “And I want to be better prepared for next year by building up more experience so that I can effectively demonstrate the fruit of my training.”

Toshiya Saito, who delayed his studies at Hosei University to focus on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, has since returned to school but remains determined to compete in the Olympics next summer.

  © Kyodo

Toshiya Saito, the silver medalist in the men’s individual foil at the 2017 World Fencing Championships, set aside his studies at Hosei University to train fulltime for the now-postponed Olympics. He has since decided to return to school for the first half of this academic year. “I want to graduate,” he said. “I’ll make up my mind in the summer about whether I should keep going to school while competing in matches based on how competitions are resumed.”

In Japan, Olympic hopefuls must cover some of their overseas travel expenses on their own. This has been no problem for Saito, who can lean on Japan Airlines and three other sponsors.

Besides having to self-finance and find their own sponsors, many Japanese athletes are also on their own when it comes to working practice sessions and competitions into their schedules.

And now Saito worries about how the one-year delay will impact his arrangements going forward.

He knows he really has only one way to repay his sponsors, by medaling. “To achieve that,” he said, “I must think carefully and act decisively,” as he once did in choosing to take a sabbatical from school.

Now more than ever those two goals, to graduate and repay his sponsors, are in conflict.

At 30, Yuka Osaki doesn’t expect her basketball skills to grow much and wouldn’t feel right about taking a spot on next year’s women’s national team.

  © Kyodo

Yuka Osaki, a member of the Japanese women’s national basketball team at the 2016 Rio Olympics, is leaning toward ending her career now that the Tokyo Olympics have been put off.

It is the second time in less than two years for Osaki to ponder a post-basketball life. At the end of 2018, she gave birth and figured motherhood would keep her off the hardwood. But by January she was back with the national team.

Osaki did not join any club in the Women’s Japan Basketball League but did lay out a plan that might provide a path to the 2020 Olympic team — daycare for her baby and a place to train for herself.

She kept telling herself, this many “more months to go, for better or worse.” She demonstrated her ability first at the national team’s training camp and then in February, when the national team played at an Olympic qualifying tournament (as the host nation, Japan did not have to qualify for the Olympics).

Japan finished third in its heat with a 1-2 record, but the experience gave Osaki a shot of confidence and the determination to push through to the start of the Olympics in July.

Not so many weeks later, though, the Olympics were postponed.

Now Osaki is facing some practical issues. Does she really want her daughter to grow up in daycare for another year? Can she even afford the fees?

There is also the matter of motivation. The postponement sapped it from Osaki, 30, who believes motivation to be an athlete’s most critical attribute. “I thought I could take up the challenge because it was short-term,” she said. But really, “I have no growth potential like I did while I was in my early 20s.”

“I also feel it’s no good for women’s basketball in Japan if [a 31-year-old] is able to find a place on the national team a year from now.”

Osaki has told her family she is thinking of giving up on the Olympics. She stopped training full time in late March but has been procrastinating about making a final decision, partly due to advice from Coach Tom Hovasse, who told Osaki to take a little more time before moving on for good.

“I know what this long extra year would mean to me and how difficult it’s going to be,” she said. “So it’s hard for me to say to myself, ‘I’ll give it my all.'”

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