• AFP-JIJI

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Table tennis star Mima Ito said she’s ready to play without fans at the Tokyo Olympics, as long as it means the games can go ahead.

Organizers of the postponed 2020 Games have denied cancellation is in the cards and have floated the possibility of holding the games behind closed doors.

“I want fans to be there, but the most important thing for a player is for the event to go ahead and be able to play,” Ito, the world No. 3 and one of Japan’s most popular Olympians, told AFP. “If that’s the choice, I’d rather play without fans. I definitely want to play.”

Tokyo 2020 chiefs are set to make a decision on crowd numbers in the coming months, but Ito isn’t fazed by the prospect of competing without the roar of the home crowd behind her.

“I need to make sure I’m ready to deal calmly with whatever conclusion they reach,” she said. “I don’t want to get flustered — I want to make sure I’m fine whatever happens.”

Ito’s star has been on the rise since she became the youngest-ever table tennis athlete to earn an Olympic medal with a bronze in the team competition at the Rio Games in 2016 at 15 years and 300 days.

She went on to become the first Japanese player — male or female — to reach No. 2 in the world rankings last year.

Breaking China’s Olympic dominance, however, will be a tall order.

Chinese women have won every singles gold since table tennis became an Olympic sport in 1988 — but Ito believes she’s capable of springing a surprise on home turf.

“I know I’ve become a better player and I have a lot of confidence in my game,” said Ito, who will compete in the Olympic singles, team and mixed doubles events.

“Even from just a month or two ago, I’m becoming more confident with each day.”

The Japanese government and Olympic officials insist the games will open as scheduled on July 23 despite a rise in coronavirus infections in and outside Japan and sinking domestic support.

Ito is not letting reports the Olympics could be canceled distract her from the job at hand.

“I’m preparing with the assumption that it’s going ahead,” she said. “As a player, I definitely want it to go ahead, and I’m practicing every day with that in mind.”

Ito lost to Kasumi Ishikawa in the final of Japan’s national championships earlier this month, her second tournament following an eight-month break in the virus-disrupted international schedule.

She returned to action at the Women’s World Cup in China in November, and says it didn’t take long to get back into the groove.

“It was great fun, but I had to quarantine for two weeks before the competition started and there were a lot of unfamiliar things I had to deal with,” she said.

“It was quite stressful, but once the matches started it was a lot of fun. I wanted the matches to come quickly, and when the competition finished, I wanted to make sure I was in shape to be able to play any time. It reminded me how much fun it is to play matches.”

Ito says she never felt her spirits drop when competition was shut down last year and instead enjoyed her time at home watching dramas on television.

She says she’s never let her focus waver throughout the pandemic, but is still looking forward to some time off when it’s all over.

“Winning at the Olympics is the thing that I most want to do this year,” she said.

“After that, once the pandemic is over, I want to go to a hot spa with my friends and really enjoy being in Japan.”

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