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For many high school athletes, the Inter-High School Sports Festival is an event they aim for each year.

In a sense, the multi-sport event is akin to the Olympics for high school athletes in Japan.

So when the All Japan High School Athletic Federation announced on Sunday the upcoming summer edition had been canceled due to the COVID-19 outbreak, it was a huge shock for many athletes, especially those in their final year of high school.

This year’s Inter-High School Sports Festival, which is held annually, was supposed to have taken place in August. The 2020 edition was going to be staged in 21 different prefectures to make up for the shortage of hotel rooms caused by the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, which have now been postponed until next year.

This marks the first year the event has been called off since its inception in 1963.

Middle-distance runner Yuki Futami, a student at Suwa Seiryo High School, barely missed the podium in the boys’ 800 meters at the 2019 event and had been aiming for the gold medal this year. He’s now lost his chance at that goal.

“Ever since I finished fourth, I’ve been like, ‘I’ll win the title at next year’s inter-high school meet,” Futami told The Japan Times in a telephone interview earlier this week. “So I’m really disappointed.”

The 17-year-old runner has not been able to use his school’s facilities for practice over the last month and had anticipated the high school federation’s decision. It was still a bitter pill to swallow, however, to learn the biggest sporting event on the high school calendar would not be taking place.

Futami said his mind went “blank for about 10 to 15 minutes” after he heard the news about the cancellation.

Futami still has a chance to compete at other events, like the National Sports Festival, and is keeping his sprits up and setting new goals. At the same time, nothing can replace the Inter High School Sports Festival for him.

“Compared to other national championships, it means more because (the inter-high school meet) is an event only high school athletes can compete in,” Futami said. “I believe that the best high school athletes in Japan can only be decided through the inter-high school meet.”

Akihiro Amemiya, director of the Suwa Seiryo track and field team, said his athletes set their objectives and base their practices around the inter-high school meet every year.

If there’s something you can point to, you could blame that,” Amemiya said referring to the decision to cancel the event. But there isn’t (because you can’t fight against the virus).”

When the cancellation was announced, notable athletes who had competed in past editions expressed their sympathy through social media.

Daichi Sawano, the national pole vault record holder who captured two titles at the inter-high school meet, tweeted that the event “was everything” to him in his high school days.

“I was spending every day trying to win at the inter-high school meet,” the 39-year-old wrote. “It’s beyond my imagination to think about what kind of mental state the current high school athletes are in right now. I don’t really have words to give to them.”

Two-time Olympian Yuzo Kanemaru, who runs the 400 meters, excelled during his senior year, winning gold medals at the National Championships and Asian Championships. But the 32-year-old said that during his third year in high school, in 2005, it was his feats at the inter-high school meet that gave him the biggest sense of accomplishment.

Kanemaru tweeted that he set the national high school record twice and won titles at nationals and at the Asian Championships while he also competed at the World Championships that year. But he wrote that his gold medal-winning performance in the 4×100-meter relay with his teammates felt better than those other achievements.

“For now, I hope (high school athletes) keep your heads up,” Kanemaru tweeted. “And enjoy what you can manage to do in your high school lives and athletic careers given the circumstances so you won’t leave with regrets.”

For some sports, the inter-high school meet doesn’t necessarily represent the biggest stage. Basketball is among the notable examples as the All-Japan High School Tournament, dubbed the Winter Cup, held in December is considered as the event where the best teams in the nation are determined.

But Shinichi Inoue, a veteran head coach for the Oka Gakuen High School girls’ basketball team, said his players cried when he told them about the cancellation of the inter-high school meet.

The 73-year-old, who guided the Nagoya-based team to 24 inter-high school meet championships and 22 Winter Cup titles since assuming the post in 1986, said the cancellation might impact his players’ futures.

“(The athletes) get scouted by universities after they compete at the inter-high school meet,” said Inoue, who has coached stars such as Yuko Oga and Ramu Tokashiki, both of whom went on to play in the WNBA.

Inoue said that without the event, the team would have to use video clips from past tournaments to showcase its players to coaches and scouts at universities.

“When collegiate coaches select players, it’s harder to make their decisions if they don’t have enough (scouting) materials,” said Inoue, whose team has won the past two inter-high school meets.

“It’s like what (collegiate and professional teams) would do without Summer Koshien (the National High School Baseball Championship) being held.”

The inter-high school meet isn’t the only high school event being impacted by the pandemic.

The national sports festival for junior high school athletes has also been canceled. The Japan High School Baseball Federation, meanwhile, has stated that it would use the cancellation of the inter-high school meet as a reference point for whether it would proceed with Summer Koshien, scheduled for Aug. 8 to 25 at Koshien Stadium in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture.

On Wednesday, education minister Koichi Hagiuda proposed the idea of alternative prefectural meets as a way to give athletes an opportunity to compete.

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