Team Canada's athletes (finally) arrive at Tokyo 2020 and are ready to deliver

Just 30 red and white, Maple Leaf-apparel wearing Canadian athletes marched triumphantly into Olympic Stadium on a hot and humid Tokyo Friday night, but there was still something powerful about the moment — because for a long time it looked like no one would ever enter this stadium.

Delayed Olympic Games officially underway after opening ceremony

Canadian flag-bearers Nathan Hirayama, left, and Miranda Ayim, right, lead Team Canada into the opening ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on Friday in Tokyo, Japan. (Clive Rose/Getty Images)

There is a well-known traditional Japanese word that is a core value of the culture here: Gaman

It means keeping one's dignity, carrying on and persevering whenever a situation becomes unbearable. It also means to do one's best in the face of adversity, and in the process remaining disciplined while showing self-control.

This pandemic has tested the resolve of people around the world. And it has pushed Canada's Olympians to the edge. 

But they have endured. And Team Canada has arrived at Tokyo 2020.

It was one of the smallest groups of Canadian athletes ever to walk into an opening ceremony at the Olympics. Just 30 red and white, Maple Leaf-apparel wearing athletes competing in sports from badminton and tennis to BMX and weightlifting marched triumphantly into Olympic Stadium on a hot and humid Tokyo night. 

There was something profound and powerful about the moment — because for a long time it looked like no one would ever enter this stadium.

Members of Team Canada walk into Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on Friday during the opening ceremony. Just 30 Canadian athletes took part in the opening ceremony this year. (Devin Heroux/CBC Sports)

Despite the small number of Canadian athletes present at the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony, delayed for a year due to the pandemic, seeing Team Canada finally walk into the Olympic Stadium represented so much more than just letting the Games begin. 

This Canadian team, 370 strong and the largest since 1984, has had to battle through more restrictions throughout the incessant pandemic than most athletes around the world. Locked down for 15 months, they found creative ways to try to keep up with the competition and were not going to let a delay define their destiny or dreams. 

For much of the white-knuckle training over the past year, the athletes never really knew if these Olympics would actually reach the finish line.

'An incredible honour'

When Canadian women's basketball player Miranda Ayim and rugby 7s player Nathan Hirayama waved the flag and led the team into the stadium, it signaled that they'd finally made it.

Ayim was beaming as she waved the flag. These Games will be her third and last.

"It's an incredible honour. It's an incredible fairytale ending for me. I'm just so pleased and proud to lead the team during this moment," she said.

Hirayama, who's father, Garry, was a member of Canada's national rugby team, talked about all those who have come before him.

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"It's an honour. And there have been so many players before us who have laid the foundation for us to be where we're at and to have this opportunity to play in these Olympics," he said. 

"It hasn't always been a smooth ride, a lot of ups and downs to get here, but the rugby community is excited."

While Ayim, Hirayama and a few dozen more Canadian athletes were able to soak up the stunning ceremony, others, mostly because of their competition schedule, stayed away.

Athletes celebrate with their own opening ceremony

The Canadian swimmers, boxers, track and field athletes, field hockey players and many more did not take part in the opening ceremony, mostly due to the fact that they will compete within the first couple of days of the Olympics. 

But that didn't stop Mandy Bujold and her fellow boxers from holding their own opening ceremony.

Canadian boxer Mandy Bujold, right, takes a selfie with a pair of fellow Team Canada athletes at the Olympic Village on Friday. (Submitted by Mandy Bujold)

Inside the Olympic Village, Bujold and the team dressed up in their opening ceremony kit and held their own celebration to mark the moment and the journey just to get here. 

"Since our team is not attending the opening ceremony, we decided we will create our own Games experience. We will still get dressed in our Team Canada gear and watch the ceremony in the village together," she said. 

"It feels great to be here. I feel like I'm settled in and ready to start the competition. It's been a great experience so far. I have to commend the organizing committee for all the work they have done to make sure these Games can happen safely."

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Bujold didn't even know if she'd be at these Games. Just weeks ago, she won an arbitration case against the International Olympic Committee (IOC), allowing her to fight in Tokyo. Initially, Bujold was going to miss the event completely due to having been pregnant and postpartum during the IOC's qualifying period.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruled that the qualification criteria must include an accommodation for women who were pregnant or postpartum during the qualification period.

"This decision can give hope to young aspiring athletes around the world, knowing that they don't have to decide between an Olympic dream and starting a family," Bujold said in the wake of the decision.

Beach volleyball duo Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes also skipped the ceremony, preparing for their opening match the following morning. They were both in Rio but weren't playing with one another during those Games. 

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"The opening ceremony sets the tone for what the Games are. It is a long process though, and it does take a lot out of you. But when you walk in and hear that roar, it gives you goosebumps," Humana-Paredes said.

The Canadian men's field hockey team also put on their opening ceremony apparel and walked about the village — their small way of feeling part of the bigger celebration. 

There are eight Canadian contingents competing in team events in Tokyo, the most since the boycotted Games in 1980.

John Smythe and some members of the field hockey team pose for a group photo. (Submitted by John Smythe)

Chef de mission Marnie McBean, a three-time Olympic champion rower, has had an extra-long task of motivating Team Canada through some of the dark and searching pandemic months.

She called getting to Tokyo an Olympic-sized task and said Canadian athletes have not only persevered but are now ready to thrive.

"The fact that we have the largest Canadian team at a Summer Olympics in over 35 years speaks volumes to the focus and resilience of Canadian athletes and the sport community," she said. 

"While we are looking forward to watching them shine on the international stage, their glory will go beyond their accomplishments. This is about their journey to get to Tokyo and how they have inspired the nation."

Chef de mission Marnie McBean addresses Canadian athletes on Friday. (Photo submitted by John Smythe)

It's a Canadian team with a 14-year-old and 37-year-old swimmer. There are three sets of siblings who get to experience the Games somewhat together, distanced from one another in the village. Eleven Canadian athletes in Tokyo are children of Olympians.

Sixty-two per cent of the team identify as female or are competing in women's events. And of Canada's 370 athletes, 226 will be making their Olympic debut. 

Whether it's their first or last time at the Olympics, not one Canadian athlete could have ever imagined this would be how their opening ceremony in Tokyo would go. 

But now, the cauldron is lit. And after all that waiting and wondering, it's their time to shine. 

"We win in a marathon and not a sprint," Ayim said. 

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