TURIN, Italy – Shizuka Arakawa rescued her country from a medal-less drought with a figure skating gold at the Turin Olympics, but Japan fell pitifully short of its target of five medals as the Winter Games came to a close on Sunday.
Japan’s Olympic delegation was left with plenty of food for thought ahead of the 2010 Vancouver Games, starting with dissecting the reasons behind the atrocious performances and how to revamp winter sports to increase competitiveness on a national level.
Arakawa’s sparkle on the ice was Japan’s one saving grace, putting figure skating back on the map for the Japanese in a sport previously dominated by North Americans and Europeans in a harbinger of things to come at the Vancouver Games in the Olympic showcase.
The 24-year-old Arakawa made the most of having nothing to lose en route to winning the country’s first figure skating gold, while U.S. national champion Sasha Cohen and Russian two-time world champion Irina Slutskaya failed to live up to their billing as the top two skaters after the short program.
“I tried to concentrate on my skating instead of thinking about winning or losing. I was able to perform without paying too much attention to how other skaters perform,” said Arakawa, who was in third after the short program.
Cohen and Slutskaya had more riding on the gold and it showed in their error-strewn programs, complete with nervous looks and award-winning tumbles. On the contrary, Arakawa skated effortlessly, and more importantly, stayed on her feet in a free skate that featured five cleanly executed triple jumps — three in combination.
Even so, Arakawa was just one of 112 athletes sent to Turin as part of Japan’s 238-member delegation — its largest ever at an overseas Winter Games. Despite her heroics, the fact remains Japan still had its worst Winter Olympics since winning just one bronze at the 1988 Calgary Games.
And it barely escaped coming home empty-handed for the first time since the 1976 Innsbruck Olympics.
In marked contrast, South Korea and China both claimed 11 medals — including six golds for South Korea in short track speedskating — for their biggest hauls at a Winter Olympics. The main difference, say Japanese officials, is the two countries’ dedication to developing athletes on a national level.
South Korea, for example, has 40 indoor rinks and 30 coaches to train short track athletes alone while Japanese athletes are forced to rent indoor rinks by the hour and spend only about a third of the time the former does training on the ice.
The head of the Japanese Olympic delegation, Kenichi Chizuka, called the country’s medal count the worst possible and apologized for failing to fulfill the pre-Games goals. Probably Japan’s biggest miscalculations were in speedskating, freestyle moguls and ski jumping — previously considered its strongest winter sports.
“We had the worst possible result in terms of the number of medals, and we humbly accept it. I apologize to people in Japan for failing to achieve the goal of winning five medals,” Chizuka said.
World record holder Joji Kato, the favorite to win the men’s speedskating 500 meters, got off to a lackluster start before ending in a disappointing sixth place while Yuya Oikawa and Japan team captain Tomomi Okazaki came the closest to medaling with fourth-place showings in the men’s and women’s 500 meters, respectively.
No longer in his prime or a serious threat, former world record holder and Nagano Olympic champion Hiroyasu Shimizu came 18th in the 500 after winning a silver in Salt Lake City four years ago. The sub-par performances magnified the lack of rising new talent and the heavy reliance on the 21-year-old Kato to carry the day.
In Alpine skiing, Kentaro Minagawa almost gave Japan another magical moment on the penultimate day but missed out on a podium finish by a fraction of a second with a fourth-place result in the men’s slalom.
Summing up the performances by Japanese athletes, delegation head Chizuka pointed to a need to trim down the size of Japan’s contingent, saying the fact that a large number of athletes got Olympic berths indicated a need to enhance competitiveness through rivalry in the selection processes.
“All winter sports federations have to take it seriously, and we must start taking concrete steps to form a slimmer and stronger team,” he said, adding that in-depth analyses of the discouraging performances in Turin should be conducted by sports federations as well as the Japanese Olympic Committee.
Chizuka said the JOC is already moving ahead with a plan to build a national training complex for winter sports athletes.