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Sunday, May 31, 2020

Tokyo adrift: With Olympics uncertain, Japan’s hockey players return to day jobs

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, athletes around the world have been forced indoors. Not in Japan, however. Half a dozen Japanese hockey players have to report for work daily, leaving coach Siegfried Aikman anxious for their well-being.

Written by Mihir Vasavda | New Delhi | Updated: May 5, 2020 8:14:40 am
Like most international hockey teams, all Japanese hockey players are amateurs, with nearly half of them still students. (Twitter/FIH)

If these were non-Corona times, Masaki Ohashi would have been in Berlin right now. With his Japanese teammates, he would have been practising alongside Germany, watching the hockey giants’ showdown against India and preparing notes for the Olympics. The defender, instead, is in Tokyo. Hockey gear chucked in some corner of his apartment, putting Olympics on the backburner, and, in the midst of a pandemic-induced lockdown, returning to his day job as an assistant manager at one of Japan’s biggest private security firms.

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, athletes around the world have been forced indoors. Not in Japan, however. Despite declaring a state of emergency, the country, which has 14,877 cases as on Sunday, has not imposed a complete lockdown as seen in India and many Western countries. Businesses are still running, bars are open and, since they lack the legal powers to punish, the government can only ask people to stay home but they are not obliged to. So, half a dozen Japanese hockey players have to report for work daily – most of them in Tokyo and Osaka, the two worst-affected cities till date – leaving coach Siegfried Aikman anxious for their well-being.

Like the Indian hockey team, Japan too continued with its national camp after the Olympics were postponed. However, unlike India, who have a boarding facility within their training centre, Aikman says they have to look after their own accommodation for the duration of the camp. So, after they were asked to suspend their training two weeks ago, the players returned to their respective homes. “When they go home, they have to work and earn their money,” Aikman tells The Indian Express from the team’s training centre in the city of Kakamigahara.

As is the case elsewhere in the world, all Japanese hockey players are amateurs, with nearly half of them still students. The rest have full-time jobs. Captain Manabu Yamashita, for example, worked for the company that made maps for Tokyo’s underground railway. Yamashita is between jobs right now. But there are some, according to Aikman, who work in schools while a few others, like Ohashi, work for ‘big security companies’.

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To make sure they remain healthy, the team management has come up with strict protocols. “We monitor them intensively. Every morning, they have to send us their reports, things like body temperature, fatigue level, muscle soreness, mental state and much more. We do it on a daily basis so we know exactly how they are feeling,” Aikman says.

If something goes wrong, he adds, the player is directly sent to the hospital for a detailed check-up. The team has already had a couple of scares – while the camp was still going on, two players went down with normal flu and were isolated from the rest. Only once they recovered completely, were they allowed to join the rest of the group. Days later, one of Aikman’s assistant coaches had to go into quarantine for two weeks after he came in contact with a staff member of his child’s kindergarten, who tested positive. “So when these players go out for work, I am worried, of course,” Aikman says.

It isn’t just the physical well-being that Aikman is concerned about. The uncertainty around the Olympics, which have been postponed until next year, has taken a mental toll on the players ‘who were preparing fairly well’ for the home Games.

Mental well-being

Under Aikman, a Dutch coach with Indian roots, Japan have blossomed. Not too long ago, they were on the fringes in Asia and barely a speck on the world hockey map. Aikman has turned them into a formidable unit, leading them to the Asian Games gold medal – and thus earning a rightful place at the Olympics rather than sneaking in as hosts – and turning them into a side that, on their day, can prove to be a banana skin for any team in the world.

To further improve themselves, Japan had set up joint training sessions and practice matches with Germany. It was a win-win scenario: for Japan, it was a chance to work on their skills while for Germany, bronze medallists at the Rio Olympics, it was an opportunity to get some game-time ahead of their twin Pro League matches against India, originally scheduled to take place late last month.

But as Covid-19 cases grew around the world, Japan’s trip to Berlin was cancelled. Weeks later, the Olympics – that were scheduled to open on July 24 – were postponed by a year.

“It has a huge impact not just on our schedule, but also on the mental state of our players because it is quite a long time,” Aikman says. “It means some of our players, those who wanted to retire after the Olympics, they have to do one more year. Most of them have families, have children… most of them are getting to an age where they might not recover well. So the question is, if they make it to the next Olympics, will they still add the same value? That’s something, I think, will be for all teams.”

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On the flip side, he says, the extra year also gives him the chance to work on things which he otherwise could not have because of lack of time. Given that all coaches and players will use the additional period to come up with new strategies and study their opponents even more closely, Aikman feels the level of competition in Tokyo next year could be ‘stronger than ever.’

That is, however, if the Games take place at all. Last week, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that if the coronavirus spills over into 2021, they would have to call off the Games completely.

It’s an ‘uncertainty’ Aikman has factored in while re-planning for the Games. But he insists it won’t impact how they approach Tokyo 2021. “We don’t know how the virus develops so the uncertainty that it might be cancelled… of course, it’s one of the options. It’s in our heads. But we have set targets till July next year and will work based on those targets. So, until they cancel, it’s on.”

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