Coronavirus pandemic

Fencer pedals to stay alive

Miyake's food delivery job brings income and chance to train for disrupted home Olympics

Japan's Olympic fencing medallist Ryo Miyake setting out on another Uber Eats trip around Tokyo last Tuesday amid the coronavirus crisis. His temporary job keeps him in decent financial and physical shape. PHOTO: REUTERS
Japan's Olympic fencing medallist Ryo Miyake setting out on another Uber Eats trip around Tokyo last Tuesday amid the coronavirus crisis. His temporary job keeps him in decent financial and physical shape. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO • With the Olympics postponed to next year owing to the coronavirus pandemic, top Japanese fencer Ryo Miyake has swopped his metal mask and foil for a bike and backpack as a Tokyo Uber Eats deliveryman.

The 29-year-old, who won silver in the team foil at the 2012 London Olympics and was itching to compete in a home Games originally scheduled for this July to August, says the job keeps him in shape physically and mentally, and brings in much-needed cash.

"I started this for two reasons - to save money for travelling (to future competitions) and to keep myself in physical shape," said Miyake, who earns only about 2,000 yen (S$26.64) a day working for Uber Eats. "I see how much I am earning on the phone, but the number is not just money for me. It's a score to keep me going."

Japanese media have depicted him as a poor amateur struggling to make ends meet but he himself asked for his three corporate sponsorships to be put on hold - even if that means living off savings.

Like most of the world's top athletes, he is in limbo as the Covid-19 crisis forces competitions to be cancelled and plays havoc with training schedules.

"I don't know when I can resume training or when the next tournament will take place. I don't even know if I can keep up my mental condition or motivation for another year," he said.

"No one knows how the qualification process will go. Pretending everything is OK for the competition is simply irresponsible.

"I thought it was a little impudent to receive support in such a situation, so I told them (sponsors) to hold (sponsorship) for the time being."

In the meantime, he is happy criss-crossing the vast Japanese capital with bike and smartphone, joining a growing legion of Uber delivery staff in demand during the pandemic. "When I get orders in the hilly Akasaka, Roppongi (downtown) district, it becomes good training," Miyake said with a smile.

The unprecedented postponement of the Olympics hit him hard, as he was enjoying a purple patch in his career.

After missing out on the Rio 2016 Olympics, he came 13th in last year's World Fencing Championships - the highest-ranked Japanese fencer at the competition.

LIFE GOAL

Is the Olympics really needed in the first place? Then what do I live for if not for the sport? That is what I kept thinking.

RYO MIYAKE, who knows sport must take a back seat during the outbreak but is determined to qualify for the delayed Tokyo Games after missing out on Rio 2016.

The International Olympics Committee has set the new start date for the Games as July 23, 2021.

But, with no vaccine available for the coronavirus that has killed more than 300,000 worldwide, even that hangs in the balance.

Miyake said the Japanese fencing team heard about the postponement the day after arriving in the United States for one of the final Olympic qualifying events.

With his diary suddenly free of training and competition, he said he spent the last month agonising over what to do before hitting on the Uber idea.

"Sports and culture inevitably come second when people have to survive a crisis," he said.

"Is the Olympics really needed in the first place? Then what do I live for if not for the sport? That is what I kept thinking."

However, the new and temporary career delivering food in Tokyo has given the fencer a new drive to succeed. "The most immediate objective for me is to be able to start training smoothly once the emergency is lifted," he said.

"I need to be ready physically and financially for the moment. That is my biggest mission now.

"I love fencing. I want to be able to travel for matches and compete in the Olympics. That is the only reason I am doing this."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 17, 2020, with the headline 'Fencer pedals to stay alive'. Print Edition | Subscribe