LONDON — A British university is busy preparing to become home for Japan’s sporting stars in the runup to the London 2012 Olympics.
Staff at central England’s Loughborough University have been brushing up on the Japanese language, food and culture before the team arrives.
The university in Leicestershire County will be a training camp for Japan’s Olympians before their events in London. In the meantime the school is providing facilities for Japanese athletes when they compete in Europe.
Loughborough officials say preparations are going well for 2012, and they hope to use the Japanese visit to create enduring ties between Japan and the counties of the East Midlands.
“The Japanese Olympic Committee chose us because we have the highest concentration of sports facilities for elite athletes anywhere in Europe,” said Chris Earle, the university’s director of sports.
The agreement with the JOC envisages 400 athletes, trainers and other staff making 9,000 overnight stays between now and 2012. Earle declined to reveal how much the contract is worth to the university.
Each Japanese athlete will need to spend around 10 days at Loughborough to prepare and readjust to the time difference before heading to the Olympic village in London, he said.
During that time, the Japanese will be taking advantage of state-of-the-art facilities along with the British team, the only other major country using Loughborough as its camp for the Olympics.
Earle said that could lead to some of the Japanese and British athletes training and competing with one another, but much will depend on whether coaches think it is beneficial.
“We are very used to dealing with elite international athletes and we hope that Loughborough will become something of a European sporting hub for the Japanese,” he said.
While the university is accustomed to dealing with the requirements of British and Australian athletes, it has had to do a little bit more research to cater to the Japanese visitors, particularly in the field of nutrition, Earle said.
Mark Price, head of catering, has visited Japan to learn more about the cuisine and is passing on his findings to his chefs at the university.
He is also liaising with a nearby Toyota factory to learn how to produce key items — such as Japanese rice — in bulk, and how they should serve and present the food.
“The Japanese will have their own restaurant and we will be cooking mainly Japanese dishes for them,” Price said. “We are sourcing authentic ingredients and will be working with JOC nutritionists in the runup to the Olympics to understand the requirements for specific sports and athletes.”
Kay England, in charge of Loughborough’s accommodations and hospitality, said a trainer has been appointed to teach receptionists, housekeepers and serving staff useful Japanese phrases.
“We have been communicating in Japanese, saying ‘hello,’ ‘goodbye,’ and produced a cartoon-style training video,” she said. “It shows, for example, how to be respectful and also how to say ‘no’ politely.”
So far, the university has found its Japanese visitors “not at all demanding.”
England said there was some concern the Japanese would be reluctant to use the student accommodations because they have only showers and no baths. But despite what she had read, the athletes didn’t have any issue with using showers. Besides, they have permission to use the facilities at the university’s hotel, which has bathtubs. The university has also provided complimentary slippers for all its Japanese visitors, but they haven’t used the footwear, she said.
The university may also install signs in Japanese around campus during the Olympics. Japanese living in the area will be on hand to help the athletes and their support personnel get around the site and to pitch in if any problems crop up.
The university is hoping the Japanese presence will create long-term ties with the East Midlands region and they have recruited a local school, which already teaches Japanese, to hold “musubi” days.
“Musubi is a Japanese word for connection,” said Gaynor Nash, who runs the project. “In its literal form it is a set of threads joined together to form a knot. In a metaphorical form, it means people coming together to form connections.”
At a musubi day, kids from the South Wolds School in Nottingham introduce students from other schools to the Japanese language and culture. Some dress in kimono or Japanese soccer team shirts and try to make sushi. Others practice judo and learn how to perform on a traditional Japanese drum.
If Japanese athletes are staying at the university, they also introduce themselves to the children and answer questions about sports and Japan.
In this way it is hoped Japan can be introduced to a young audience and stimulate long-term interest in the country.
“It’s all about international understanding,” Nash explained. “They feel much more a part of the Olympics, feeling a bond with a guest nation and feeling part of 2012.”
There are also research spinoffs for the university. Scientists are developing small battery-powered scooters that require little recharging, which the Japanese athletic staff will use to get around campus.