Yoshida, Hoketsu provide compelling story lines

by Ed Odeven

In less than two weeks, the bright lights in Beijing will shine on thousands of athletes.

The talking heads will overwhelm us with the personal details of too many Olympians’ path to success, but by mid-September, our brains will struggle to remember most of these details.

Chalk it up as a classic case of information overload.

That said, it’ll be hard to forget the contrasting athletic careers of Saori Yoshida and Hiroshi Hoketsu.

The former, the 2004 women’s wrestling 55-kg gold medalist, saw her 119-match winning streak ended on Jan. 19 by Marcie Van Dusen of the United States. The latter, an equestrian rider, will compete in his first Olympiad in 44 years.

Their pre-Olympics mind-set is quite different, too.

That, of course, has much to do with the differences in their respective sports.

“I want to knock opponents down by making as many tackles as possible,” the 25-year-old Yoshida said at a Nagoya send-off rally, one of dozens around this country for top-flight Olympians, on July 8.

Hoketsu, meanwhile, wants the focus to be on his athletic ability instead of his age.

“Initially I was a little reluctant about having my age splashed across the news,” he told Reuters. “I didn’t see why my age should be such a big thing. I wasn’t selected for the Olympics because I’m 67.”

Yoshida’s approach to wrestling has changed a bit over the past four years.

“When I’d face foreigners at the Athens Olympics, I was so furious and was like, ‘I’ll definitely knock you down.’ Now I kind of think, ‘This opponent may be strong,’ and have a part in me being timid, honestly speaking,” Yoshida told Jiji Press in a recent interview.

So what’s her outlook for Beijing?

“With a mind-set of being a challenger, I’ll just fight without thinking,” Yoshida admitted.

For Hoketsu, who retired in 2002 as the president of Ortho-Clinical Diagnostics K.K., his athletic pursuits have remained constant.

“I always woke up at 5 a.m. and would go for a ride before going to the office,” he told NBCOlympics.com.

Hoketsu, in fact, stayed a national-level equestrian for decades. He was a Japan alternate for the 1984 Los Angeles Games, and qualified four years later to represent his country in Seoul, but his horse failed a quarantine exam and he was unable to compete.

At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Hoketsu placed 40th in the show jumping competition. His specialty now is the dressage competition, and he finished first in the event at the 2008 Pan Asian Olympic qualifier.

To stay in better shape than many athletes four decades his junior, Hoketsu does 50 sit-ups every morning before breakfast. Consider it a sign of his never-wavering commitment to his chosen sport.

“If anything,” he says now, “I’m more passionate about it than ever.”

The same could be said for Yoshida, who vows to repeat as Olympic champ.

Interestingly enough, in a recent media session to help publicize Tokyo’s 2016 Olympic bid Yoshida explained why she feels the Japanese public deserved one-fourth of her 2004 Athens Games gold medal.

“Don’t worry, I’m not really going to cut it in four!” she said, bursting into laughter. “One quarter of the gold medal belongs to my parents, who gave birth to me and raised me. Another quarter belongs to me, because I worked hard for it. And another quarter belongs to the people who gave me guidance since I was a child. I think the last quarter belongs to all the Japanese people who cheered for me. That’s why I want everyone to see and touch this medal. But I don’t want anyone to take it home with them.”

SOLID OUTING: Koji Murofushi, the gold medalist in the hammer throw at the 2004 Athens Games, posted a victory on Monday in a warmup event dubbed the 2008 Hammer Throw Challenge Cup at Chukyo University in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture.

Murofushi secured the victory with a winning toss of 81.87 meters, his season-best mark. What’s more, it was the third-best throw in the world this season. (His personal-best throw of 84.86 meters, the Asian record, was five years ago).

“Overall, my throw was solid today,” Murofushi told reporters after the event. “My condition is getting better for the Olympics.”

On Monday, Murofushi made six throws, getting his best toss on No. 3 before fouling on the fourth.

“My timing was a bit off in the fouled throw,” he added. “Getting the best performance at the Olympics means boosting the average of the throws, not just going for one shot.”

Murofushi’s preparation for the Olympics has been slowed down this season due to a lower back injury, and so he delayed his season debut until late June.

The veteran hammer thrower proved again, though, that he has no peers in Japan.

On June 27, Murofushi collected his 14th straight national title with a throw of 80.98 meters at the 92nd Japan Track and Field National Championships at Todoroki Stadium in Kawasaki.

Murofushi will participate in the second Challenge Cup on Sunday.

Murofushi’s father, Shigenobu, a 12-time national champ and three-time Olympian, has dished out advice to his son in recent weeks, guiding him during the final stages of training.

Murofushi said this has helped him focus on the fundamentals as he gets ready for Beijing.

The elder Murofushi said: “If he continues sharpening his competitive edge at home, we can expect better results.”

SMALL GROUP: One of Japan’s smallest Olympic contingents will be in the men’s boxing division.

Satoshi Shimizu will compete in the featherweight division (57 kg).

Matatsugu Kawachi will lace up the gloves and enter the ring as a light welterweight (64 kg).

Shimizu, 22, is a Komazawa University student. He earned a trip to Beijing by winning the Asian qualifier in his weight class in February in Bangkok. He is a two-time participant at worlds.

Kawachi, who turns 23 on Nov. 25, is a member of Japan’ Self-Defense Force’s Physical Training School. He got his start in boxing at Saga Ryukoku High School and captured first-place trophies in three national tournaments as a senior.

At the 2007 World Boxing Championships in Chicago, Kawachi scored a stunning upset over Thailand’s Manus Boonjumnong, the 2004 Athens Olympics gold medalist, in the first round. He finished the tournament as the first Japanese to win a bronze in 29 years.

Flyweight Koki Ishii garnered a bronze medal at the 1978 World Boxing Championships.

The Beijing Olympics’ boxing participation breakdown is as follows: 28 boxers in each weight category — eight from Europe and six apiece from Africa, Asia, the Americas, as well as one from Oceania and one from the host nation or an invited boxer.

ON THE WEB: Numerous Internet sites highlight the accomplishments of individual athletes and teams. But few athletic groups’ Web sites can make a bigger positive impact on a global matter — the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Sudan’s Darfur region, for instance — than Team Darfur’s.

Joey Cheek, a gold medalist in speed skating at the 2006 Turin Winter Games, and UCLA water polo player Brad Greiner founded the group.

It began with a shockingly heartfelt gesture: Cheek gave his medal-winning bonus to Right to Play, a humanitarian organization providing relief for Sudanese people and thereafter raised $1 million for efforts.

Today, there are more than 380 Team Darfur athletes from 50-plus countries, according to Team Darfur’s latest newsletter.

The group’s Web site — www.teamdarfur.org/ — showcases Team Darfur member’s efforts to dedicate themselves to a cause greater than themselves. And it’s a crusade that will be in the spotlight next month in Beijing.

THE LAST WORD: “I know I must come up with tactics against foreign players. But I’ve focused on improving myself and strictly following my own way of judo. I want to play fully to my own potential,” Ryoko Tani, the two-time defending under-48 kg women’s Olympic judo champ told AFP-Jiji on Tuesday, taking a break from the national team’s training camp.

Staff writers Hiroshi Ikezawa and Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this article.