LONDON – Sixteen action-packed days of competition — plus a few days of soccer that began before the Opening Ceremony on July 27 — delivered a better-than-expected performance for Japan at the 2012 London Olympics.
Perhaps Sebastian Coe, chairman of the London Games Organizing Committee, best summed up what Japan had accomplished when he spoke about the entire world’s efforts in the 30th Olympiad.
“London 2012 has played host to some incredible sport,” Lord Coe said at the Closing Ceremony at Olympic Stadium late Sunday night. “To awe-inspiring feats that are the synthesis of incredible dedication and skill by the world’s great sports men and women.”
Digesting all the results from the past two-plus weeks, this is the most important thing to point out, I think: Japan had its best-ever Olympics at the London Games, earning 38 medals (seven gold, 14 silver and 17 bronze). The nation’s previous top medal haul was 37 at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Credit the Japan wrestling team (four gold medals) and the swimming program, which produced four second-place finishes and eight bronze medals for providing a major boost to give Japan the record.
Many Japanese athletes here spoke about dedicating their performances to the people of Tohoku or the nation as a whole as it continues its painstaking recovery from the March 11, 2011, natural disasters.
At whatever venue I visited during the London Games, there was a sense of duty on display for all of Japan’s athletes. Yes, I observed, they enjoyed the competition, but there was a seriousness about doing their best that shone through, almost a greater duty, it seemed, than those who competed in Beijing to bring back medals to Japan.
“I was aiming to get the gold medal, but it’s unbelievable that I really did it,” Japan’s final London Games gold medalist, wrestler Tatsuhiro Yonemitsu said. “I think that every day’s training paid off. If you did your best just on the day, it would not work. You need to train step by step.”
It’s worth noting — it’s a heart-warming anecdote, actually — that each of Japan’s Olympic athletes were given a good-luck charm (a ribbon, resembling a medal, with words of encouragement) made by Tohoku schoolchildren before their departure for the U.K.
A recap of some top performances follows:
Day 1: Swimmer Kosuke Hagino swam the fastest time (4 minutes, 10.26 seconds) in the third heat of the men’s 4×100 medley relay, a sign of things to come for Japan in the pool. He went on to earn the bronze.
Day 2: Archers Ren Hayakawa, Miki Kanie and Kaori Kawanaka earned a third-place finish in the women’s competition at Lord’s Cricket Grounds.
Day 3: Judoka Kaori Matsumoto collected Japan’s first gold of the London Games, producing the nation’s first major highlights of the Summer Games. Romania’s Corina Caprioriu fell short to the world No.1 who is expected to call it a career.
Led by Kohei Uchimura, the Japan men’s gymnastics team placed second to China for the second straight Olympics.
In the Aquatics Centre pool, Japan also had a solid day with Ryosuke Irie (100-meter backstroke), Aya Terakawa (women’s 100 backstroke) and Satomi Suzuki (women’s 100 breaststroke) all hauling in bronze medals on the day
Day 4: Swimmer Takeshi Matsuda placed third in the men’s 200 butterfly, one spot behind all-time great Michael Phelps, who was the overwhelming favorite to win the race. Judoka Yoshie Ueno grabbed the bronze in the women’s 63 kg competition.
Day 5: Kohei Uchimura, three-time all-around world champion, delivered a splendid performance in the same Olympic event for Japan’s second gold in London.
Day 6: Swimmer Ryosuke Irie placed second in the men’s 200 backstroke, while Satomi Suzuki collected her second medal of the meet, silver in the women’s 200 breaststroke.
Day 7: Over-78 kg judoka Mika Sugimoto claimed the silver medal. Takaharu Furukawa nabbed the silver in men’s archery.
For Furukawa, his third Olympic experience was the best one.
“At Athens (2004), I was just so happy that I could go there so that was that. At Beijing (2008), I was just too hopeful and excited and trying too much, and so I created pressure on myself,” he said.
“In London, I felt relaxed throughout — I wouldn’t go as far to say I was happy to lose at the Olympics, but there was the feeling of relaxation. I knew what I could expect from London and I felt relaxed from the start.”
Day 8: Mizuki Fujii and Reika Kakiiwa become the first Olympic badminton medalists in Japan’s history, placing second to a Chinese duo at Wembley Arena. The men’s 4×100 medley (Ryosuke Irie, Kosuke Kitajima, Takeshi Matsuda and Takuro Fujii) shocked many by placing second.
“I always wanted to win a medal with this team,” said Irie, the backstroker. “We have never achieved a silver medal in a medley relay before so I am very happy.”
Also, Satomi Suzuki helped guide the Japan women to a bronze in the 4×100 medley relay. In doing so, she became the first Japanese female to collect three medals at a single Olympics.
Day 9: Hammer thrower Koji Murofushi, who won the world title last summer at age 37 after being crowned Olympic champ in 2004, finished third overall to earn a medal eight years after his first, impressive signs of longevity and dedication to his craft.
Day 10: Nadeshiko Japan defeated France 2-1 in the women’s soccer semifinals at Wembley Stadium in an exciting match. A nation of bleary-eyed fans cheered wildly in the middle of the night.
When it was over, Nadeshiko captain Aya Miyama said, “They (France) were an amazing team, but we had the most passion.”
Day 11: Table tennis teammates Ai Fukuhara, Sayaka Hirano and Kasumi Ishikawa finish runnerup to powerhouse China to grab the silver medal. Coach Masayoshi Manabe’s volleyball squad defeated China 3-2 in the women’s quarterfinals, Japan’s first win over its rival in 11 years.
Day 12: Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture, natives Kaori Icho, at 63 kg, and Hitomi Obara, at 48 kg, collected wrestling gold medals on the same day. For Icho, it was her third straight title.
Day 13: Saori Yoshida, a decorated world champion over the past decade, captured her third consecutive 55-kg wrestling title. Also, Nadeshiko Japan finished second to the United States in the much-hyped women’s soccer final, a rematch of the 2011 Women’s World Cup championship match, won by Japan.
Day 14: Japan fell short of the coveted bronze in the men’s soccer competition, falling 2-0 to South Korea in Cardiff, Wales.
Day 15: Middleweight boxer Ryota Murata captured the gold, becoming Japan’s first boxing medalist since the 1964 Tokyo Games.
“I’m proud. I can’t believe what I’ve done,” an emotional Murata said. “Thank you to God, my family and all respected cultures. I practiced so many years for this and it all depended on winning gold. I never thought it would feel so heavy.”
The Japan women’s volleyball team picked up its first medal since the 1984 Los Angeles Games, holding off a dangerous South Korea team led by Kim Yeon Koung, winning in three games.
Saori Sakoda, a rising star for Japan, described her team’s performance in a post-match interview: “We had fear and nerves prior to the game. However we wanted to turn it into concentration and it worked. We worked very well together.”
Day 16: Freestyle wrestler Tatsuhiro Yonemitsu won the men’s 66-kg title, the Fujiyoshida, Yamanashi Prefecture, native outpointing India’s Sushil Kamar 4-3 in the final.
“I have dedicated all of my life to wrestling,” Yonemitsu said. “Not everybody can get this medal even though they make an effort, so this is a very important medal.”