Rookies to miss out on full Olympic Games experience in Tokyo, veterans say

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Canada's veteran athletes foresee a sterile experience for their rookie counterparts in Tokyo's Summer Olympics.

Sterility is the name of these Games with an estimated 70,000 people, including 11,000 athletes, arriving from all parts of a world not quite free of COVID-19.

The Tokyo Games, postponed to 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic, will try to bring the world together for sport, yet keep it apart and distanced at the same time.

A dozen days out from Friday's opening ceremony, Tokyo entered a state of emergency because of rising cases of infection and barred Japanese spectators from attending events.

For Canadian athletes, no international visitors means no family or friends to make eye contact with in the stands. Athletes aren't even allowed to go support Canadian teammates in other venues.

A gauntlet of throat and nasal swabs and temperature checks await both athletes who previously competed in a "normal" Olympic Games and debutants.

The Tokyo organizing committee also wants athletes and everyone else to get out of Japan as soon as their role in the Games is over.

For five-time Olympic sailor Nikola Girke, that means a crucial ingredient will be missing or diminished in Tokyo: "The 'five-ring circus,' the whole hoopla that surrounds the Olympics and the excitement of seeing and being among all of the other athletes from all the other countries."

The 43-year-old windsurfer from West Vancouver, B.C., is accustomed to staying in a sailing satellite village, but also getting a taste of the athletes' village after she's done competing.

“These Olympics, it will be completely segregated in that sense," Girke said. "There will be none of that.”

Loitering in the athletes' village dining hall, meal tray in hand, watching the world go by, is also discouraged.

Athletes can see others through transparent dividers, but instructions are to eat and move on.

"The dining hall is a disaster, but it's part of the Olympic experience," said two-time Olympic beach volleyball player Sarah Pavan of Kitchener, Ont. "I did not think so many thousands of people would be eating at the same time, always.

"I know they're getting people out of the village, or out of the country 24 to 48 hours after they're done competing, so there won't be the hanging out, or soaking in the Olympics, going to watch other sports.

"That was such a fun part of the Olympics for me, just getting to experience the other sports. Even for myself, I wish the Olympics were going to be normal, but for people who — this is their first experience — it's kind of sad."

Athletes marching behind their countries' flags in the opening ceremonies feel what they're about to do is special, and it's a much-anticipated right of passage for a first-time Olympian.

Only a small contingent of 30 to 40 Canadian athletes will march into Olympic Stadium on Friday.

Athletes aren't allowed into the village until five days before they compete, so fewer Canadian athletes will physically be there by then.

Many of them will be too close to the start of their competition to file in behind flag-bearers Miranda Ayim of the women's basketball team and men's rugby sevens co-captain Nathan Hirayama.

"We have a smaller population who is even here and available to go into the opening ceremony," chef de mission Marnie McBean said.

"There will be a presence of Team Canada. It will look smaller than normal, but it will be a concentrated group of athletes who are looking to have a good time."

Hugging and shaking hands with competitors is frowned upon, although athletes may forget that in the rush of emotion after touching the wall or crossing the finish line.

Medallists will hang their own medals around their necks instead of bowing for an International Olympic Committee member or international federation head to do so.

An environment fostering connections and relationships — not only with athletes from other countries, but with host-country citizens — will be hampered by masks covering faces and the requirement to distance from each other.

"Any new Olympians, this is their first experience and it's not going to be what the Olympics truly are," said runner Melissa Bishop-Nriagu of Eganville, Ont.

"I know Japan will put on an amazing Games. I wish we weren't in a pandemic, because I think it would have been incredible what they would have done."

Girke's sailing teammate Sarah Douglas, who makes make her Olympic debut in Tokyo, has an inkling what she'll be missing based on her previous Pan American Games experiences.

"I'm going to be kind of restricted in my movement and just being in my little bubble of a sailing venue," said the 27-year-old from Toronto.

"I'm excited because when you have the Canada flag on your sail, it's something special. I am a bit bummed that it's not going to be the experience I thought it was going to be, but I think any experience in going to the first Olympics is something special.

"There's so many different aspects of it that make it probably a bit more mentally challenging than a normal Olympics, but nothing about this now is normal."

For 18-year-old swimmer Josh Liendo, what he doesn't know doesn't hurt.

"I haven't been to one before, so I have nothing to compare it to like the other guys," the Toronto teen said.

"I'm just excited to race guys from other countries and race some fast swimmers. That's what I'm really looking for: some people to challenge."

— Lori Ewing, Gemma Karstens-Smith, Curtis Withers and The Associated Press contributed to this story.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 22, 2021.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

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