Pizza deliveries on ice as Sochi nears

Wed Dec 18, 2013 4:12am EST
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By Shinichi Saoshiro

TOMAKOMAI, Japan (Reuters) - Tomoko Sakagami delivered pizza to finance her ice hockey dreams but cheese crust pepperonis will be the last thing on her mind when she takes to the ice as part of the Japanese women's team at the Sochi Olympics.

Taking odd jobs was the only way many women on the team could earn the money with the flexible hours needed to pursue their Olympic ambitions in a country where ice hockey, like most other sports, lives in the shadow of soccer and baseball.

Japan has about 2,100 registered female and 7,700 male players. The women's only previous Olympic appearance was as hosts at the 1998 Nagano Games where they lost all five games, scoring two goals and conceding 45.

But qualifying for the February 7-23 Sochi Games has brought the Japanese squad, dubbed "Smile Japan," both unaccustomed fame and full time job offers, which could give the world's 10th ranked team the edge they need for a shot at a medal.

After they qualified for Sochi the Japanese Olympic Committee threw its weight behind them, helping all the players, except students, find full time work at companies and businesses willing to hire Olympians.

"Under my new employment clause, practice time is included in my working hours. I am more stable financially and comfortable mentally," said 28-year old goalkeeper Azusa Nakaoku, who was promoted to full time employee at the sporting goods shop where she works after Japan earned qualification.

The players need to support themselves financially but also required flexible working hours to attend practices, training camps and games.

Qualification for Sochi has brought sponsorship money flowing in but prior to that, team members had to pay for their own equipment and each had to pitch in 50,000 yen ($490) when the team played abroad.   Continued...

Japan's Tomoko Sakagami (L) fights for the puck with Switzerland's Katrin Nabholz during a round two game at the IIHF Women's World Ice Hockey Championships in Hameenlinna April 9, 2009 file photo. REUTERS/Bob Strong