Gunning for an unprecedented third consecutive gold in women’s wrestling at 55 kg, Saori Yoshida led Japan’s athletes into the Olympic Stadium as the London Games opened in spectacular style on Friday.
Flag bearer Yoshida led her teammates, dressed in red blazers and white trousers, at the extravaganza in front of around 80,000 spectators and dignitaries and an estimated worldwide television audience of 4 billion.
Japan has a 518-strong delegation here, 293 of whom are athletes, second in scale behind the 576 that went to the 2008 Beijing Games.
Around 10,500 athletes from 204 countries and regions are taking part in the Games being staged for the third time in London, which also hosted the event in 1908 and 1948.
Yoshida, looking to rebound with a bang after her 58-match winning streak came to an end at the women’s World Cup in May, was joined by tennis star Kei Nishikori, among others.
Javelin thrower and team captain Yukifumi Murakami did not take part in the opening ceremony, instead preferring to focus on his preparations.
“To be given the greatest role on the greatest stage gives me the greatest feeling,” said Yoshida. “I could feel the weight of the Olympics in the flag. I feel now even more determined than ever to win the gold medal.”
Japan, celebrating the 100th anniversary of its Olympic debut at the 1912 Stockholm Games, is targeting 15-18 gold medals and fifth place in the standings.
“We should make this Olympics a memorable one since it marks the 100th year since Japan first participated in the Games, and we have set a target of finishing fifth in the world in the gold medal standings,” said Japan’s Chef de Mission Haruki Uemura.
Along with Yoshida, Kaori Icho at 63 kg is also aiming for a three-peat in women’s wrestling as is swim king Kosuke Kitajima in the men’s 100 and 200 meters breaststroke. Three-time world champion Kohei Uchimura is the favorite to win the men’s all-around title in gymnastics.
Tomoko Fukumi will shoulder the burden of triggering a gold rush for Japan’s women when judo kicks off on Saturday, the first full day of competition.
Kitajima will be involved in the 100 breast heats while sharpshooter Tomoyuki Matsuda will be looking to give Japan its first medal of the Games in the men’s 10-meter air pistol.
“The key will be in the first half of the games with a gold medal rush resting on gymnastics, swimming and judo,” said Uemura. “We want to achieve the goal of finishing fifth at any cost and hope it leads to (Tokyo) succeeding its bid to host the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics.”
Japan has already gotten off to a flying start in the London soccer competition. Women’s world champions “Nadeshiko Japan” beat Canada 2-1 in their opening match on Wednesday in Coventry and Takashi Sekizuka’s men’s team then stole the headlines 24 hours later by pulling off an upset 1-0 win over gold medal candidates Spain in Glasgow.
“Both the women’s and men’s soccer teams have won and this is a good start for Japan so hopefully we can keep pushing forward with this momentum,” said Uemura.