SOCHI, RUSSIA – Despite a number of disappointments, Japan still made history at the Sochi Olympics, which concluded on Sunday.
Although solid medal favorites such as women’s ski jumper Sara Takanashi and women’s figure skater Mao Asada failed to medal, Japan still managed eight medals, a Japan record for overseas Winter Games, with 41-year-old ski jumper Noriaki Kasai winning two.
“We did fall short of our goal of winning 10 medals and we had just one gold medal,” said Japan chef de mission Seiko Hashimoto. “But of the eight we won, seven came from the mountains and that will go a long way toward (the 2018 Winter Games in) Pyeongchang.”
Four days after the Opening Ceremony, a pair of teenagers opened Japan’s account on the medals table. Middle school student Ayumu Hirano seized the silver medal in the men’s snowboard halfpipe, with high schooler Taku Hiraoka taking the bronze.
Their heroics ended a glum spell for Japan. On the first day medals were awarded, Aiko Uemura narrowly failed to medal with a fourth-place finish in an emotional performance in her fifth Olympics.
The next day, Japan finished fifth among the five nations who reached the final stage of the first Olympic team figure skating competition, and the day after two medalists from the Vancouver Olympics, Joji Kato and Keiichiro Nagashima, failed to make an impact in the men’s 500-meter speedskate race.
On the heels of those poor results, Hashimoto, a four-time former Olympic speedskater, declared that the goal of matching Japan’s total of 10 medals from the 1998 Nagano Games was still within reach, and her optimism was rewarded the following day by Hirano and Hiraoka.
Although Takanashi, the overwhelming favorite to win the Olympics’ first women’s ski jump, suffered heartbreak with a finish in fourth, Akito Watabe grabbed silver in the Nordic combined normal hill the following day for Japan’s third medal.
Figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu gave his nation a Valentine’s Day gift with a gold medal in the men’s singles competition, when he survived an error-strewn free skate thanks to a sublime short program the day before.
Kasai, who had finished eighth in the men’s normal hill competition earlier, raised his game on Sochi’s second Saturday, coming 1.3 points short of gold to take the silver in the large hill.
Two days later, Kasai anchored Daiki Ito, Reruhi Shimizu and Taku Takeuchi to the bronze in the team event. Before Sochi, Kasai had joked about aiming for his eighth straight Winter Games in four years, but his performance made that jest sound more like prophecy.
Although Japan sent more women than men to Sochi, the men ruled Japan’s medal portfolio. Tomoka Takeuchi won the silver in the women’s parallel giant slalom for the women’s first medal while Ayana Onozuka had the last word with a bronze medal in the women’s ski halfpipe.
On Friday, Asada put a poor short program behind her with a powerful free skate. Although she failed to bring home a medal, Asada succeeded in redeeming herself in an emotional performance, which was likely her final appearance in a Winter Games.