When the Tokyo Olympics finally begin this week, Japanese organizers hope Months of arguing On Covid-19, the power of sports will be wiped out, especially a 21-year-old swimmer named Rikako Ikei.

Ikei suffered from leukemia in 2019, and even if she recovers, she is expected to miss the Olympics. However, due to the coronavirus postponing the 2020 Tokyo Olympics by one year, it opened the door to an unlikely comeback.

Ikei has an outgoing personality and is a fierce competitor. Her story makes her a rallying point for those who want to continue the competition under the coronavirus situation, even if only to realize the dream of an athlete who has been preparing for the competition for five years.

Coronavirus cases in Tokyo are on the rise, and only 31% of the Japanese public received the first dose of Covid vaccine. After initially stated that it would allow spectators to enter the venue, the Japanese government changed its mind this month and decided to hold the game behind closed doors.

“To be honest, there are many Japanese people who don’t want to host the Olympics,” said Lin Ming, a professor of sports science at Tokai Gakuen University. “But keeping her active is one thing that really inspires enthusiasm.”

Due to the coronavirus, the one-year postponement of Tokyo in 2020 opens the door to Ikei’s unlikely comeback © Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images

When Ikei set off for the training camp in 2019, she was considered the person most likely to win a medal. In the Asian Games the previous year, she took the lead in the freestyle and butterfly competitions, returning with six gold medals and two silver medals.

Tomoaki Tasaka is a former swimmer and now writing about the sport, she said that Ikei is known for her superb technique and high body posture in the water, which allows her to beat significantly higher opponents. “She likes racing, she hates failure,” he said. “If she breaks the record, she will not stop here, but always seek to break the record again.”

Then Ikei fell ill. Her coach drove her back to Japan, where she was diagnosed with leukemia. “I still can’t believe it,” she told her followers on Twitter. “But if treated properly, a full recovery is possible.”

Throughout 2019, Ikei received painstaking cancer treatment. “Even if I get up, it’s very tiring,” she told Japan Broadcasting Corporation NHK this year. “I am very ill, and I feel very tired even alive.”

But by the end of the year, she was discharged from the hospital. She restarted training and started swimming again in August 2020 after being absent for nearly two years.

“When I saw her return to the game a year ago, she looked like a wounded. She was too thin: she didn’t look like an athlete at all,” Hayashi said. “I think the Tokyo Olympics are unimaginable. She must target Paris.”

But Ikei has been improving. In February of this year, she finished second in the 50m freestyle at the Japan Open. In the Olympic trials, although she did not fully meet the deadline, she qualified for the medley relay.

Tasaka said that the Japanese medley team is unlikely to win medals, but can set a national record and enter the finals. “Let her swim in the Olympics will really show what humans can achieve,” he said.

Since Ikei is a symbol of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, activists who promoted the cancellation of the Olympics began bombarding her on social media, calling on her to withdraw or declare against the Olympics.

Her solemn response, refusal to take a stand and shouting out those who send “very harmful messages” was a factor that allowed Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to continue to promote the Olympics when Covid concerns reached their peak in May.

“From now on, I want to really enjoy my progress,” Ikei told NHK. “If I could show bit by bit how a person who once fell to the bottom grew to this point, wouldn’t it be great?”

Her next step is Tokyo 2020. When she participates in the competition at the end of July, the whole of Japan will be watching.


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