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Japan hopes for repeat of glory in Beijing

by Ed Odeven

As a nation, Japan collected a record 37 medals at the 2004 Summer Games, including 16 golds, which matched the nation’s all-time record set at the 1964 Tokyo Games. And so it’s only natural for people to be curious if Japan can duplicate that level of success or achieve a higher medal count at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.

Several thousand athletes will compete in Beijing, but keeping track of all of them will be an impossible task

So here’s a brief primer on Japan’s top medal hopefuls: Kosuke Kitajima — men’s swimming. The 25-year-old Tokyo resident won a pair of gold medals at the 2004 Athens Games, finishing first in the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke race. He is stronger, quicker and a smarter swimmer than when he grabbed the spotlight four years ago.

Wearing Speedo’s LZR Racer suit in June at the Japan Open, Kitajima set a world record in the 200 breast, clocking a blistering 2 minutes, 7.51 seconds. If anything that victory sent a message to his top rival, Brendan Hansen of the United States, and the world: I’m back in top form.

Hansen, meanwhile, failed to qualify for the 200 breast for the Olympics, but both are revved up for their rematch in the 100.

“I want to be in my best shape for the 100 and be perfectly tuned for the 200,” Kitajima told Kyodo News in a recent interview in Beijing. “Regardless of my opponent’s condition I intend to go all out for victory in the 100, too.”

Kitajima also helped Japan grab the bronze in the 4×100 medley relay.

Saori Yoshida — women’s freestyle wrestling. The defending Olympic gold medalist at 55 kg saw her 119-match winning streak end in January. To say she’s hungry to prove that loss was a fluke would be the understatement of the year.

“I want to knock opponents down by making as many tackles as possible,” Yoshida said in early July. Oh yeah, she’s got plenty of energy left to vie for a second gold.

Kaori Icho is the defending Olympic champ at 63 kg, while Chiharu Icho, her sister, added to the family’s medal collection by picking up a silver at 48 kg. Teammate Kyoko Hamaguchi earned the bronze at 72 kg.

The Japan judo squads. Collectively, Japan took home 10 medals, including eight golds, four years ago. Talk about national domination.

The top names to keep an eye on are Keiji Suzuki, the Japan Olympic team captain who won the men’s heavyweight gold, and Ryoko Tani, who is vying for an unprecedented third straight title at 48 kg.

For Tani, she wants to add to her legacy by winning her first gold since giving birth to her son Yoshiaki, who is now 2.

“Everything is going according to schedule. I’m excited. I feel a great opportunity in being able to take on this challenge for an incredible record of winning gold even as a mom,” Tani told Kyodo News.

Tani’s first medal, a silver, came in 1992 at the Barcelona Games and she repeated the feat in Atlanta in 1996.

The Japan baseball team. Coming off a silver-medal showing in Athens and a title in the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006, this year’s “Hoshino Japan” squad is primed to take home the title. Anything less would be considered a disappointment for Yu Darvish, Shinnosuke Abe and Co.

Japan opens the tournament on Aug. 13 against Cuba, the team it defeated in the WBC final two years ago.

The Japan softball team. This group received a bronze in Greece. Ace pitcher Yukiko Ueno, whose heater has been clocked at 120 kph, has reportedly been working on a changeup.

Japan was the runnerup at the 2006 world championship and wants to end the current run of softball in the Olympics on a high note.

Mizuki Noguchi — women’s marathon. Noguchi gave Japan its second straight gold by winning the 2004 marathon in Athens, repeating the feat accomplished by Naoko Takahashi in Sydney. Noguchi will aim to defend her title in the sweltering heat in Beijing.

At her sendoff party in Kobe on her 30th birthday, Noguchi said, “I’m definitely going to win.” She credits her growing maturity from a mental standpoint as being a factor in why she’ll be more relaxed in her second Olympics.

Koji Murofushi — men’s hammer throw. The 14-time Japanese national champion and 2004 gold medalist has been an elite-level athlete for a long time.

He earned the gold when Adrian Annus, the first-place finisher, failed to take a doping test in Athens. He’s clearly motivated to prove he can win again without being upgraded in the standings due to off-the-field issues.

Hiroyuki Tomita — men’s artistic gymnastics. Tomita helped Japan win the men’s team gold in 2004 and collected a silver on the parallel bars in the ancient Greek city.

Tomita and Takehiro Kashima are the lone returning members of that title-winning squad. “I’ll just do what I’m supposed to do and perform firmly in Beijing,” Tomita said in a recent interview. “And then the outcome will be determined by the judges.”

Kashima was the bronze medalist on the pommel horse.

Ai Shibata — women’s swimming. She surprised many by capturing the gold in the 800 freestyle.

In the four years since then, Shibata has had mixed success. But she earned a trip to Beijing, and at the Olympics is where she wants to add to her legacy.

Swimming bronze medalists. Tomomi Morita (men’s 100 backstroke), Reiko Nakamura (women’s 200 back) and Yuko Nakanishi (200 women’s butterfly) will look to upgrade their resumes in Beijing, adding the words “silver” and “gold” to the top of the page.

The Japan synchronized swimming squad. Miya Tachibana and Miho Takeda nabbed the women’s duet silver in 2004 and team also secured a silver in Athens. Expect similar results in Beijing.

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Did you know?: Japan has won 114 gold medals in the Summer Olympics, 106 silvers and 115 bronze.