TOKYO (AP) — The self-described rugby TikToker Ilona Maher finally got a taste of Olympic competition after bringing the world into the athletes village via social media.
After urging viewers to check it out with posts about life, the food, the furniture and other athletes behind the scenes, she joined her U.S. rugby sevens teammates in a 28-14 win over China on Thursday at the Tokyo Games.
“Honestly, TikTok has been great to keep my mind off the Games,” Maher said. “It’s been a good way to share myself with the world in a really genuine, authentic way and give people an inside look in to the Olympics.”
The 24-year-old U.S. forward said her fun posts are also a way to promote the game in what has become largely a fan-free zone in Japan because rising coronavirus cases prompted the government to ban spectators at most Olympic events.
“We would have 10,000 people watching in here if not for COVID-19,” she said, glancing around the almost-empty, 48,000-seat Tokyo Stadium. “But instead we have double or triple that watching at home because of, hopefully, my TikToks!”
The Americans are in the same group as defending champion Australia, which beat Japan 48-0 in the following game. The Japanese teams have had the misfortune of starting against the 2016 gold medalists in both the men’s and women’s tournaments, without the benefit of the home crowd.
The Japanese men lost to Fiji in the tournament opener, and ended up next-to-last after being a semifinalist in Rio.
The morning after their men’s team successfully defended the title from 2016, when rugby sevens made its Olympic debut, the Fijians kicked off the women’s tournament with a narrow 12-5 loss to France, narrowly missing a late equalizer.
Canada, bronze medalists in Rio, had a slow start before overwhelming Brazil 33-0.
Abbie Brown scored long after the full-time siren sounded to level the score and Holly Aitchison converted to give Britain a tight 14-12 win over the Russian team.
The top-ranked New Zealand, heavy favorites for gold, had a 29-7 win over Kenya and will return in the evening session to meet Britain.
The Australians play China and the U.S. plays Japan in the night games in Pool C.
Maher has been getting plenty of attention back home with her humorous outtakes, some of which she likes and some she’d rather edit.
“I like the cardboard bed ones I do with my team. It’s fun to get them into it and giving people a glimpse of how amazing my team is,” she said.
The Tokyo Games are unusual for athletes, with their time in the official accommodations limited and social distancing restrictions in place.
“This is my first Olympics, so this is normal to me,” Maher said. “Japan has done an amazing job putting this on. They’ve slayed it with everything — the beds, the food, the environment, the village.”
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