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Ikee hit with wave of support from peers

The Yomiuri Shimbun

A group of athletes send a message of support to Rikako Ikee, who is battling leukemia, from the world championships in South Korea on Monday.

AFPGWANGJU, South Korea (AFP-Jiji) — Swedish swimmer Sarah Sjostrom led a moving tribute to Rikako Ikee at the world championships on Monday, calling the Japanese star a “real fighter” in the face of her leukemia diagnosis.

Sjostrom stood alongside Margaret MacNeil and Emma McKeon on the medal podium with a message of support for the Japanese swim queen, a major rival of all three, scrawled on their palms.

“Never give up, Rikako Ikee,” read the tribute, alongside two love hearts, as the three 100-meter butterfly medalists held their hands out to the camera.

“I hope really that she [Ikee] will battle this cancer. She is a real fighter and the real winner,” said Sjostrom.

The 25-year-old Swede had been looking to become the first female swimmer to win five gold medals in a single individual event but was forced to settle for silver after a stunning race by MacNeil.

But Ikee’s illness puts her disappointment into perspective, she said.

“What is swimming compared to what she is going through? I told myself that before my race: it doesn’t matter where I come because her battle is 50 times more than anyone else in this final,” she added.

“I really hope she will recover and come back and do what she loves. She loved swimming so much and I really think she will come back and fight this cancer.”

Canada’s MacNeil, who at 19 is the same age as Ikee, said she and Australia’s McKeon had been easily persuaded by Sjostrom’s idea to reach out to the Japanese star.

“She [Ikee] couldn’t be here with us today so we’re hoping that this will show we’re supporting her and we’re here if she needs anything,” she said.

Ikee, the poster girl for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, was diagnosed with the cancer earlier this year and is receiving treatment in Tokyo.

The teenager shot to fame last year at the Asian Games when she secured a record six gold medals.

But she tweeted in February that she had been diagnosed with leukemia after experiencing problems during a training camp in Australia.

She has since said that battling the disease has proved “thousands of times harder” than she expected.

Ikee would have been a favorite to win 2020 Olympic gold in the 100 butterfly and a serious medal contender in the 200 freestyle in her home city. Japanese media said the country’s main bone marrow bank was flooded with donation inquiries after Ikee reported her diagnosis.

Horton warned for podium snub

Meanwhile, Australian swimmer Mack Horton has been warned by FINA after he snubbed his Chinese rival Sun Yang on the podium after the world 400-meter freestyle final.

Horton, who took silver behind Sun at the weekend, refused to step onto the top step of the podium for photos after the medal ceremony in Gwangju, as doping allegations swirl around Sun.

The Australian’s protest reignited their row at the 2016 Rio Olympics, where Horton labeled Sun a “drug cheat” over a prior doping ban before pipping him to gold.

It also angered Sun, who accused Horton of “disrespecting China,” and triggered a backlash on social media with the Aussie’s Instagram being trolled by Chinese users, some even posting death threats toward Horton and his family.

“The FINA executive ... has decided to send a warning letter to Swimming Australia and to Mack Horton,” said a statement from swimming’s governing body.

“While FINA respects the principle of freedom of speech, it has to be conducted in the right context.

“As in all major sports organizations, our athletes and their entourages are aware of their responsibilities to respect FINA regulations and not use FINA events to make personal statements or gestures,” it added.

Sun, who has always protested his innocence over the three-month ban he served in 2014, is again competing under a doping cloud after a leaked FINA doping panel report alleged he smashed blood samples with a hammer after being visited by testers last year.

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