The Canadian Olympic Committee announced the decision on Monday as the clock ticks down to the start of the Olympics, which were delayed last year by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Events begin in less than one week, with restrictions in place on spectators, officials and athletes as Japan attempts to limit the spread of the virus among the thousands of international athletes and officials arriving for the Games.
In a press release, the Canadian Olympic Committee said the naming of Ayim and Hirayama marked two important firsts “in a year when Canadians embraced the spirit of teamwork and joined together to face generation-defining challenges.”
“Tokyo 2020 is the first summer Games where an athlete representing a team sport has been named as Canada’s Opening Ceremony flag bearer,” the committee said. “It also is the first time that two athletes will march with the Canadian flag at a summer Games Opening Ceremony.”
Canada is sending a record number of athletes — 370 — to compete in the Games.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered his congratulations in a recorded virtual message streamed by the Canadian Olympic Committee during the flag-bearer announcement.
He said the Games this year will celebrate not only the accomplishments of athletes, but also “collective resilience” after more than a year of the global fight against COVID-19.
“These Olympic Games will serve to remind us of the power sports can have in our lives.”
Ayim is set to retire after the Tokyo Olympics, which will be her third. She was part of the Canadian team that won gold in the Pan American Games in Toronto in 2015, and has been competing for Canada internationally for 15 years.
“I feel incredibly honoured to lead Team Canada alongside Nathan into the Opening Ceremony and to be representing not only my fellow athletes of Team Canada, but also the greater Team Canada: our nation,” Ayim said in a press release from the committee.
“The past year and a half demanded a high level of teamwork and Canadians from coast-to-coast-to-coast demonstrated togetherness, camaraderie and sacrifice — true team spirit.”
Hirayama will be competing in his first Olympic Games in Tokyo. It is also the first time Canada will have a men’s rugby sevens team at the Olympics, according to the committee.
“I’ve been watching the Olympics for my entire life and understand the honour and privilege that comes with being the flag bearer. It’s something that I’ve never even dreamt of,” Hirayama said in the statement released by the committee. “I’m extremely excited to get to Tokyo with my team. We’ve been working hard together for a long time and can’t wait for our opportunity to show the world what we can do.”
Games officials said around 11,500 athletes are expected in Japan to compete, while another estimated 79,000 journalists, officials and staff are also expected to be in attendance.
Masks will be mandatory for everyone in attendance.
According to the Tokyo Olympics Playbook obtained by Global News, athletes travelling to attend will be required to show two separate, negative COVID-19 test result certificates before they even set foot in Tokyo, including one within 96 hours of departure and another within 72 hours. They will also be expected to download and activate one app that will monitor their location and be used for contact tracing, and another that will send out daily temperature and health check reports.
Athletes will be tested upon arrival and will have their temperatures checked each time they enter an Olympic venue. Masks are required for the duration of the Games, and athletes will be required to replace masks as soon as they become damp and to wash them once a day.
Both Ayim and Hirayama told reporters who asked about the COVID-19 restrictions in place that they feel safe with the guidance and rules for the Olympic Village and travel, and “trust the protocols.”
Organizers said as of Sunday they had identified three COVID-19 cases among athletes and roughly 10 cases among the media, contractors and other personnel supporting the games.
Meanwhile, infection rates continue to rise in the Japanese capital.
—With files from Global’s Emerald Bensadoun.