London Olympics set stage for Japan’s athletes to shine

Past winners hope for repeat while rising stars seek to prove 2011 was no fluke

Kyodo

For Japan, 2012 will be a make or break year as the country aims to impress in a number of key sporting events at the London Olympics this summer.

After a year in which a country in desperate need of encouraging news to buoy the spirits of its people in the wake of one of the biggest natural disasters in its history, the Nadeshiko Japan soccer team came to the rescue in an epoch victory over the United States in the Women’s World Cup final — proving that, even against the odds, miracles do happen.

Nine-time world champion in women’s wrestling Saori Yoshida, three-time gymnastics world champion Kohei Uchimura, two-time double Olympic breaststroke champion Kosuke Kitajima and Athens Olympic-winning hammer thrower Koji Murofushi hold the best chances for bringing home gold medals for Japan at the July 27-Aug. 12 games.

Japan’s women soccer players will also surely be out to prove that their victory was no accident as they aim for another gold in the British capital.

London is hosting the summer games for an unprecedented third time, but Japan will make its first Olympic appearance there.

London last hosted an Olympics in 1948 in a time of rationing after World War II.

Challenging Alexander the Great

For wrestling world champion Yoshida, becoming one of the first Japanese female athletes to win three consecutive Olympic titles seems the least of her troubles.

Not that accomplishing such a feat will be a cakewalk for the 29-year-old when she aims for her third straight gold medal in the 55-kg class at this summer’s London Games.

But Yoshida has set her sights on an even bigger prize — surpassing former Russian Greco-Roman wrestler Alexander Karelin’s all-time best of 12 consecutive world and Olympic championships, deeming her unprecedented Olympic achievement somewhat of a foregone conclusion.

“I have dreams I want to accomplish. If I stay healthy and fit and have no injuries, I believe I can win,” said Yoshida, who booked her Olympic berth with her 10th straight national title in December, and is the overall favorite for London.

Her quest for glory, however, might be taking its toll as she attempts to ward off opponents determined more than ever to throw her off her game. The last time she tasted defeat was when her incredible 119-match winning streak was snapped by American Marcie Van Dusen in January 2008.

And though Yoshida recovered afterward to go on her current winning spree, some cracks have recently crept through her armor, despite capturing her ninth consecutive world title in September and winning her 10th straight national crown last month.

In the final at the worlds against Canada’s Tonya Verbeek, Yoshida escaped with a narrow 2-1 victory after losing the second period when her opponent countered her tackle. “I was afraid I might lose,” Yoshida recalled through tears of relief following the match.

At the nationals, she pulled off a 2-0 victory over Kanako Murata but not before the world junior champion scored a point with a tackle for an advantage in the first period before Yoshida rallied for the win.

“My body felt too light. I learned a lesson that if I fight this way I won’t be ready (for London). I have to really reset and do my best going forward,” Yoshida said.

If Yoshida can win her third straight Olympic title, she will be off to Canada about a month later in her bid to dethrone Karelin — a living legend known as the “The Experiment” and “Alexander the Great” in his heyday — who won three straight Olympic golds and nine consecutive world titles.

Karelin, who as a heavyweight had immense power and would hoist his opponents in the air before slamming them violently to the mat, lost his first match in 13 years in the super heavyweight final of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, having to settle for the silver against American Rulon Gardner.

Small by comparison to Karelin, who stood at 193 cm, Yoshida has a heart as big as a lion with a roar that is even louder. And though she has struggled as of late, losing for her is not an option.

“This (surpassing Karelin) is my ultimate goal. It might be strange for me to say this, but I think it is a big deal for someone who is small like I am to make this challenge,” Yoshida said.

‘Beautiful machine’

The national soccer team’s triumph at the Women’s World Cup final in Germany last summer may have been the biggest success story of 2011 for Japanese sports, but as a tour de force, Uchimura’s historic triumph at the gymnastics world championships in the fall was surely the hands-down winner.

Uchimura, who will turn 23 on Jan. 3, is the Beijing Olympic all-around silver medalist but having delivered a performance more precise than a Swiss watch at the worlds in Tokyo, it would take a brave punter to bet against him from going one better and taking the gold at the London Games in the summer.

Uchimura became the first gymnast in history to win three consecutive men’s all-around titles at the worlds. He held a full house spellbound with a flawless floor exercise and went on to dominate, dazzling on the high bar to score a winning total of 93.631 points to trigger wild celebrations among home fans at Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium.

Germany’s Philipp Boy, who took the silver medal at the worlds for the second year in a row, described Uchimura as a “beautiful machine” and admitted he could not see anyone preventing him from winning the gold in London.

“Nobody can beat Uchimura, he is a very special gymnast,” said Boy. “Everything he does looks beautiful. He makes no mistakes and I think he is a kind of machine.”

Machine proved to be an accurate description of Uchimura. He was so fast in the floor exercise en route to winning his second gold of the championships that even the judges miscalculated the number of twists Uchimura executed on one of his maneuvers. He had initially received 6.5 points for difficulty but was later upgraded to 6.7 after the miscalculation prompted an inquiry from Japanese coaches.

Individual accolades aside, Uchimura said he is eager to make amends and help the Japanese men’s team, which won gold at the 2004 Athens Games, become champions in London after finishing second to China at the Tokyo worlds.

China, the star-studded Beijing Olympic champions, moved ahead of Japan at the worlds after the fifth rotation and held on for victory after a strong challenge by the host ended when Yusuke Tanaka and Uchimura both made errors on the horizontal bar. “I want revenge in London. I hope we can get a better-colored medal there,” Uchimura said.

Battle for the unprecedented

Kitajima has no misconceptions about his bid to become the first male swimmer in history to win the same events in three consecutive Olympic Games — achieving such a feat will require a colossal effort from the two-time double Olympic champion.

The Japanese swimmer had a rude awakening when Norway’s Alexander Dale Oen, who was swimming in the lane next to him, romped to victory in the men’s 100-meter breaststroke at the world championships in Shanghai last summer.

Oen’s winning time of 58.71 seconds was just 0.13 off the world record Australian Brenton Rickard set at the 2009 worlds in Rome during the height of the high-tech swimsuit frenzy.

Kitajima could do nothing but take his hat off to Oen after finishing 1.32 seconds behind in fourth place. “He was creating a race of his own,” Kitajima said of the man whom he edged out in the 100-meter final at the 2008 Beijing Games en route to completing his second straight 100-200 Olympic breaststroke double.

“It was an utter defeat. I had no chance at all. He’s got everything from mental toughness to breaststroke techniques. He has no rivals now,” Kitajima added. “I have to work out from now how I am going to beat him.”

No swimmer had swum under 59 seconds in the 100 breaststroke since the high-tech suits were banned in January 2010. Kitajima predicts that in London he will need to go faster than his Beijing Olympic winning time of 58.91 — still a Japanese record — to win the 100.

As for the 200 meters, his chances seemsomewhat better. At the 2011 worlds, Kitajima went close to setting a world record and settled for silver.

The 29-year-old apparently ran out of steam in the last 25 meters after making the final turn 0.27 ahead of the world record pace. Athens Olympic 200-meter runner-up Daniel Gyurta of Hungary came from behind for his second gold in the event in as many worlds.

Asked about his prospects for the Olympics, Kitajima said in late 2011. “I haven’t really thought about the Olympics yet. I first have to survive at the qualifying event (national championships) in April.”

Defying the years

When Murofushi makes his first throw in the hammer at this summer’s Olympics in London, he will be two months shy of 38.

But the only Japanese to have won a gold at both the Olympics and the world athletics championships is showing no signs of waning, ahead of what will be his fourth and likely final Olympic appearance.

“This will probably be my last Olympics,” Murofushi said late last year. “I want to keep working toward another medal.”

In Daegu, South Korea, last summer, Murofushi won his first gold at the world championships with a season high of 81.24 meters, edging Hungary’s Krisztian Pars by .06 meters.

Murofushi, who punched his ticket to London with the victory, hadn’t medaled at the worlds or the Olympics in seven years, not since he won a gold at the Athens Games. The half-Japanese, half-Romanian finished fifth at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and had to sit out the 2009 worlds in Berlin due to injuries.

And though no fault of Murofushi’s, his gold medal in Athens was shrouded in controversy. Hungarian Adrian Annus had the longest throw in the competition, but was disqualified for a doping violation, and Murofushi was later bumped up from second to the top of the podium.

While a gold was still a gold, it wasn’t Murofushi’s ideal way of being crowned Olympic champion and the incident gnawed at him like a unending nightmare — until his achievement last August.

The Athens experience made his title in Daegu all the sweeter as he became the oldest gold medalist in world championships history. “I won a gold before, but I didn’t receive the medal on the podium, so I’m really happy about this,” said Murofushi. “I was able to win at the age of 36.”