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Two years ago, Typhoon Hagibis slammed into the Japanese coast and flooded the city of Kamaishi. With their match scuttled, Canadian players got busy cleaning out houses and helping the elderly. Now, COVID-19 protocols prevent them from seeing how Kamaishi has fared

Canadian rugby players clean mud off a road in Kamaishi on Oct. 13, 2019, after the Japanese coastal city was inundated by Typhoon Hagibis. The Canadians were there for a match against Namibia that was cancelled when the storm cut off the roads.Kyodo News via Getty Images


The last time he came to Japan to play rugby, Conor Trainor found himself hauling soggy couches instead after a typhoon lashed the city of Kamaishi, where his team had prepared for their best chance at a World Cup win.

Now, the global pandemic means he can’t go back to see the place he helped to clean up in an unplanned act of charity that won the Canadian men’s team widespread acclaim.

The health regime that governs the Tokyo Olympics has kept fans from stands, left families at home and barred athletes from leaving the places they sleep and compete. The Games themselves have gone on, providing the images of athletic conquest and unexpected defeat that make the Olympics so compelling to advertisers and broadcasters.

But the rugby team’s missed opportunity to return to Kamaishi is one of a thousand examples of the human connections forfeited in an Olympics that has, more than any in recent memory, been created almost exclusively as a product for television viewers, even as it has stripped joy from those actually participating.

“It would have been especially powerful to go back and see the exact houses that we went into, the exact parts of town,” Trainor said. “Because people are pretty resilient, so it would have been cool to see how they recovered and thrived afterward.”

At the Tokyo Olympics, Conor Trainor of Team Canada competes against Fiji on July 26.Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images

Trainor and his teammates woke up Oct. 13, 2019, ready to play their scheduled match against Namibia. The team had already arrived the previous night in Kamaishi, which had built a stadium as part of its recovery from the devastation of Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The Canada-Namibia match was to be the only one played on the new pitch. The team arrived early in order to put on a clinic for local children.

Overnight, however, Typhoon Hagibis struck, bringing winds that gusted to 180 kilometres an hour and dumped some 76 centimetres of rain on parts of the country. It caused an estimated US$15-billion in losses.

The day of the match dawned clear and sunny. But the wind and rains had punished infrastructure, cutting off road access to Kamaishi. The Namibian team bus could not enter the city.

“We were obviously super bummed,” said Andrew Coe, another member of the World Cup squad. Already stinging from a trio of defeats – including the most lopsided loss of the tournament – the team moped for a few hours. The Namibia game was their only realistic chance for a World Cup win.

Then, someone in the local community called to ask if the players might be willing to help people in a local neighbourhood whose homes had been flooded. Most raised their hands. “Japan gave us so much over the previous few weeks in terms of hospitality and sharing their community,” said Coe, who has also returned to play in the Olympics. “I felt like the least we could do was cleaning up the community.”

Canadian player Peter Nelson cleans floors in a house in Kamaishi in 2019. The damage from Typhoon Hagibis was estimated to cost US$15-billion.Kyodo News via Getty Images

In short order, a bus was arranged to take them to one of the worst-affected parts of the city. The typhoon had brought metre-deep floodwaters, Trainor recalled. “And the whole population was elderly.”

The players removed mud that had clogged drainage systems and took soaked furnishings out of homes that had been under water. “We were moving fridges, moving futons, moving couches and just pulling them out of houses to dry out all of the floors,” Trainor said. Water-logged tatami mats, in particular, were too heavy for local residents to lift.

“The city was cut off from any help. So I don’t know how those would have been lifted otherwise to dry out – and the mould would have set in,” Trainor said.

Among those whose mats they carried was Masao Hadano, then 88. “I was at a loss when I couldn’t do it myself,” he told The Asahi Shimbun at the time. “The strength of the players really helped me.”

The Canadian cleanup effort prompted other acts of charity. “Rugby fans from Australia, England and Hong Kong distributed alcohol and sweets in the city to cheer up the people of Kamaishi,” said Akiko Iwasaki, who held a welcome party for the team in 2019. “Some citizens who were impressed by this welcomed them into their homes and served tea.”

It “was truly moving and we still remember that,” she said.

Trainor and teammate Philip Berna pursue Sireli Maqala of Fiji during a match on July 26.Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

Rugby has formed an unexpected point of connection between Canada and Japan. The Japanese team’s first international match was against a visiting team from Canada in 1932 – Japan won – and the two teams have since tied in both of their most recent World Cup matches. On Tuesday, the countries met again in rugby sevens, with Canada winning 36-12. (Canada then lost to New Zealand in the quarter-finals to be eliminated from medal contention. It plays the United States on Wednesday.)

Outside that match Tuesday with Japan, the Canadian players won’t have much chance to interact with their hosts at these Games. The team has such a short time in Japan that even a virtual visit proved impossible to arrange.

Kept inside the athletes village and the rugby pitch, “we don’t get to experience all the cool things the country has to offer. We can’t go meet people like we did last time,” Trainor said. “It’s almost like we’re not even really in Japan.”

With a report from Naoko Mikami



visual guide

How Olympic rugby sevens works

SCHEDULE

Qualification

Medal

JULY

23

24

25

26

27

28

29

30

31

AUGUST

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

Rugby returned to the Olympic program at Rio 2016 with seven-a-side contests for men’s and women's teams. Rugby fifteen-a-side was played in 1900, 1908, 1920 and 1924 with men’s teams only

Match duration

Pool stage: Two 7-minute halves

Final: Two 10-minute halves

Rugby ball

280-300 mm

Shin guards

Boots with studs

Two teams of seven players compete to carry the ball over the opponent’s try line

The ball may be kicked forward but must be passed backwards or laterally between players

Player grounds the ball on or past the opposing team’s try line to score

TECHNIQUES

Tackle

Maul

Ball is held off

the ground

Ruck

Ball is on the ground

Player must

call out “mark”

while catching

Mark

Catch an

opponent’s kick*

*Player must have at least one foot on or behind their own 22-metre line when catching the ball or when landing having caught it in the air

FIELD OF PLAY

70 m

Dead ball line

Goal/try line

22 m line

10 m line

Halfway line

100 m

5.6 m

Goal post

3 m

SCORING

Try, 5 points

When a player touches the ball down on or past the opposing team’s goal line but before the dead-ball line

Conversion, 2 points

When a try is scored, that team is awarded a kick at goal

Drop goal, 3 points

When a player successfully kicks a goal from a drop-kick in open play

Penalty goal, 3 points

When awarded a penalty, a player can opt to kick at goal and has 60 seconds to take the kick

SOURCE: REUTERS

SCHEDULE

Qualification

Medal

JULY

AUGUST

23

24

25

26

27

28

29

30

31

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

Rugby returned to the Olympic program at Rio 2016 with seven-a-side contests for men’s and women's teams. Rugby fifteen-a-side was played in 1900, 1908, 1920 and 1924 with men’s teams only

Match duration

Pool stage: Two 7-minute halves

Final: Two 10-minute halves

Rugby ball

280-300 mm

Boots

with studs

Shin guards

Two teams of seven players compete to carry the ball over the opponent’s try line

The ball may be kicked forward but must be passed backwards or laterally between players

Player grounds the ball on or past the opposing team’s try line to score

TECHNIQUES

Tackle

Ruck

Ball is on the ground

Player must

call out “mark”

while catching

Maul

Ball is held off

the ground

Mark

Catch an

opponent’s kick*

*Player must have at least one foot on or behind their own 22-metre line when catching the ball or when landing having caught it in the air

FIELD OF PLAY

70 m

Dead ball line

Goal/try line

22 m line

10 m line

Halfway line

100 m

5.6 m

Goal post

3 m

SCORING

Try, 5 points

When a player touches the ball down on or past the opposing team’s goal line but before the dead-ball line

Conversion, 2 points

When a try is scored, that team is awarded a kick at goal

Drop goal, 3 points

When a player successfully kicks a goal from a drop-kick in open play

Penalty goal, 3 points

When awarded a penalty, a player can opt to kick at goal and has 60 seconds to take the kick

SOURCE: REUTERS

JULY

AUGUST

SCHEDULE

23

24

25

26

27

28

29

30

31

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

Qualification

Medal

Rugby returned to the Olympic program at Rio 2016 with seven-a-side contests for men’s and women's teams. Rugby fifteen-a-side was played in 1900, 1908, 1920 and 1924 with men’s teams only

Match duration

Pool stage: Two 7-minute halves

Final: Two 10-minute halves

Rugby ball

Boots with studs

280-300 mm

Shin guards

Two teams of seven players compete to carry the ball over the opponent’s try line

The ball may be kicked forward but must be passed backwards or laterally between players

Player grounds the ball on or past the opposing team’s try line to score

TECHNIQUES

Tackle

Ruck

Ball is on the ground

Player must

call out “mark”

while catching

Maul

Ball is held off the ground

Mark

Catch an opponent’s kick*

*Player must have at least one foot on or behind their own 22-metre line when catching the ball or when landing having caught it in the air

SCORING

FIELD OF PLAY

70 m

Try, 5 points

When a player touches the ball down on or past the opposing team’s goal line but before the dead-ball line

Dead ball line

Goal/try line

Conversion, 2 points

When a try is scored, that team is awarded a kick at goal

22 m line

10 m line

Halfway line

100 m

Drop goal, 3 points

When a player successfully kicks a goal from a drop-kick in open play

5.6 m

Goal post

Penalty goal, 3 points

When awarded a penalty, a player can opt to kick at goal and has 60 seconds to take the kick

3 m

SOURCE: REUTERS

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