Olympics / Summer Olympics

How the postponement ended the Olympic dreams of athletes

by Kaz Nagatsuka

STAFF WRITER

The impact of the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics has been far-reaching, but it is the athletes who have been affected the most.

In fact, some Japanese athletes couldn’t wait the extra year for the games to begin and instead opted to close the curtain on their careers. Under different circumstances, many could’ve easily earned places on their respective Olympic teams and represented Japan.

Women’s volleyball player Risa Shinnabe was certainly among them. The 30-year-old announced her retirement from the game in late June, citing an injured right hand as a major reason.

Shinnabe said that her plan was end to her playing career after competing at the Tokyo Games, but that she could no longer commit to the games due to the injury, for which she underwent surgery in April.

“I thought that it would be a little difficult for me to play as well as I would hope to and contribute to the team in a year from now,” Shinnabe said at an online news conference.

The former Hisamitsu Springs outside hitter added she was “devastated” when she heard the games would be pushed back to 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“That one year, to me, felt very long,” said Shinnabe, who was part of the Japan team that captured a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics.

Risa Shinnabe (left) poses for photos with her teammates after Japan's women's volleyball team won bronze at the 2012 London Olympics. | KYODO
Risa Shinnabe (left) poses for photos with her teammates after Japan’s women’s volleyball team won bronze at the 2012 London Olympics. | KYODO

When asked about her plans if the games had gone ahead this summer, she responded by saying: “I was going to do my best to try to be one of the 12 players on the roster.”

But in the end, the Kagoshima Prefecture native, who missed the 2016 Rio Olympics due to injuries, could not hang in there.

“I’ve felt that it was getting more difficult to maintain my physical condition and my performance was declining year in and year out,” said the 2013-14 V. Premier League MVP, who will remain with Hisamitsu in a role that has not been announced. “And I could no longer imagine that I would be able to go through the same (training) cycle for another year and maintain my condition.”

Women’s basketball guard Manami Fujioka is another athlete who was likely a slam dunk to make the Olympic team.

Fujioka has been hampered by a series of severe injuries during the latter part of her career. She suffered a cleavage fracture in her pelvis in 2017 and injured her right thigh two years later.

In January, she injured her right oblique during the annual All-Japan Championship. That happened after she’d just returned to action after recovering from an ankle injury.

So she felt it was time to move on.

It wasn’t just the injuries that convinced her to hang up her jersey. Fujioka, who played for the Jx-Eneos Sunflowers of the Women’s Basketball League (who will be called the Eneos Sunflowers next season), struggled to lead the team as the point guard. While she cherished being part of the WJBL title-winning squad for all four seasons since graduating from the University of Tsukuba in 2016, the 26-year-old was also in pain, especially during the 2018-19 season, when she was the full-time starter.

Fujioka decided to hang up her sneakers after the 2019-20 season, which was cut short due to the coronavirus, in March.

“When I heard that the Olympics have been postponed, I was like, ‘Oh, OK.'” Fujioka said. “I wasn’t a player who was having fun playing the game and who was excited to be on the court anymore.”

Former Japan women's team guard Manami Fujioka (right) dribbles against Belgium's Julie Vanloo during an exhibition series last year in Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture. | KAZ NAGATSUKA
Former Japan women’s team guard Manami Fujioka (right) dribbles against Belgium’s Julie Vanloo during an exhibition series last year in Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture. | KAZ NAGATSUKA

Fujioka described herself as a person of her word. She set high goals and achieved them at almost every level — from junior high to high school and college.

To put on a national team jersey at the Tokyo Olympics had once been her biggest goal.

“That was the goal I wanted to accomplish the most, to be playing at the Tokyo Olympics,” said Fujioka, who was a candidate yet ended up being left off the roster for the Rio Games. “So it’s incomprehensible, even to myself, that I’ve lost this much of my motivation. Regardless of the Olympics having been postponed or not postponed, I was so cool-headed and I knew I wasn’t having fun playing.

“But the Olympics is a place everyone wants to be and it’s been special to me, too. So I think that’s why I’ve been able to push myself as much as I did.”

Meanwhile, Fujioka has not completely shut the door on a return to the court. The Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture, native has already begun her second career serving as an assistant coach for the women’s team at Chiba Eiwa High School, her alma mater, since June.

Her current focus is to eventually become the team’s head coach and make it a powerhouse. But she did not rule out the idea of coming back if her motivation returned.

“There are three years until Paris (Olympics after the Tokyo Games) and while I’m associated with the sport as a coach, there’s a possibility that I get different thoughts from different angles,” said Fujioka, who was selected to the all-tournament team at the 2017 FIBA Women’s Asia Cup, in which Japan captured its third-straight championship (she led the tournament with 8.2 assists per game). “So I’m not going to come to the conclusion that I will never come back to play. If I do want to play basketball, I’ll let my heart decide.”

Brave Blossoms star Kenki Fukuoka waves to fans after Japan's defeat to South Africa in the 2019 Rugby World Cup quarterfinals on Oct. 20 at Tokyo Stadium. | REUTERS
Brave Blossoms star Kenki Fukuoka waves to fans after Japan’s defeat to South Africa in the 2019 Rugby World Cup quarterfinals on Oct. 20 at Tokyo Stadium. | REUTERS

Rugby winger Kenki Fukuoka was fine physically, but likewise decided to abandon his intention to compete at the Tokyo Games along with some other veterans that have been part of the provisional national rugby sevens team.

For Fukuoka, who starred in last fall’s Rugby World Cup for the host Japan, winning a medal at the Olympics had been a dream.

But the 27-year-old also has a goal he wants to reach away from the pitch. That is to become a medical doctor. So he decided to give up on his athletic aim “to live a life” without regret.

“When I’ve had to make big decisions throughout my life, I’ve always chosen paths I wouldn’t regret,” said Fukuoka, who announced last month he would not try to compete at the games in order to focus on enrolling at a medical school. “So I didn’t have difficulty accepting the decision I made. Now that I’ll be out of the squad for the Tokyo Olympics, I’d like to root for the team.”

Fukuoka plans to play for the Panasonic Wild Knights in the next Top League season.

Fukuoka was born into a medical family. His father was a dentist and one of his grandfathers was an internizt. Lately, he’s been inspired even more by seeing medical workers being so devoted to coping with the coronavirus pandemic.

“It sort of made me think that I wanted to pursue my career in medicine even more because I wanted to help as much as I can (being a doctor) when we have a situation like the coronavirus (pandemic),” said Fukuoka, who guided Japan to a fourth-place finish at the Rio Olympics.

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