JOC grooms young athletes for international success at Elite Academy

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Since 2008, the Japanese Olympic Committee has run a national youth athlete development program called the JOC Elite Academy. It’s a part of the JOC Gold Plan, which was drawn up to improve Japan’s international competitiveness in sports seven years before the development program was established.

With its name and the fact that it’s run by the country, maybe it sounds like a lion’s-den-like apparatus to produce athletic machines.

But that’s probably not the most accurate way of describing it.

It’s not necessarily misleading to say that talented and qualified adolescents from around the nation are brought in to develop into global-level athletes with the guidance of the top-level, qualified coaches and staff. But it doesn’t mean that these young athletes are treated without regard to their feelings or development.

Kazushige Hirano, the Elite Academy director, insists that the JOC has installed a motto for the program; you’ve got to be better people to be better athletes.

“We don’t think that we’ll be able to produce the athletes that we aim to only by developing their athletic competitiveness,” Hirano says. “Conversely, in order to improve their athletic competitiveness, we have to develop their humanity.”

It is almost a worldwide trend that Olympic-class athletes are developed through national policies. And in a sense, it’s perhaps a necessity for a country like Japan, whose athletes are not physically gifted in general. So while a lot of other nations began discovering junior talents and developing elite athletes with their athletic development strategies, Japan’s Gold Plan, which was created as a reflection of the fact that Japan’s medal-winning ratio in overall Olympic events had gradually declined since the 1964 Games in Tokyo, wasn’t obviously a premature move.

Australia is perhaps one of the best examples of national policies triggering an increase in Olympic medals. After it won only five medals in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Australia opened a national sports training center, the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), in 1981 to develop elite athletes.

It eventually paid off and the country racked up 58 medals (fourth place in the medal standings) as the host of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. The AIS boarding program for youth is similar to the one at Japan’s Elite Academy.

But according to Hirano, the JOC didn’t actively employ the examples of other countries when it founded the Elite Academy, because it wanted to have something that would fit into Japanese society.

And as much as the programs hope to foster future Olympic medalists, it doesn’t find value in creating sporting monsters.

At the end of the day, the Elite Academy simply presents the youngsters with the best, top-notch environment and opportunities. The students get the best strength and conditioning, nutrition, lodging and international training camps and tournaments, based at the gigantic, state-of-the-art National Training Center in Tokyo’s Kita Ward, which was built just before the academy was inaugurated.

So their future success is essentially put in their own hands, not the government or the JOC’s.

“Some parents tend to think that their children can automatically go to the Olympics, but I tell them not necessarily,” Hirano says. “Because it all depends on their effort.”

Currently, a total of 52 athletes, comprised of junior high and high school students, are in the program. It started with table tennis back in 2008, and has now expanded to a total of five sports, adding wrestling, fencing, rifle shooting and diving. (Starting this year, wrestling stopped taking new students because the newer athletes wouldn’t make the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which is its biggest goal.)

All of them live in the residence building that’s attached to the NTC. Hirano says that it is modeled after some domestic sports boarding high schools. All of the junior high athletes go to a nearby public school, while the high school athletes attend ones that are also in commutable distances from the NTC.

Asked if there’s a possibility to expand even more in the future, Hirano wasn’t so sure because the number of the lodging rooms is currently limited to 57.

Hirano admits that there are vocal critics of the academy, including those who question why the country should use taxpayer money to develop athletes (actually four-fifths of the resources are from the subsidy of the Japan Sport Council via the sales of the Toto soccer lottery and the remaining one-fifth is from the JOC’s own funds, according to Hirano).

Masaru Ogawa, a respected Japanese sports journalist, questioned whether the medal-first policy should be led by the government in his recent weekly column for the Tokyo Shimbun.

“Putting emphasis on medal-hopeful events will not foster a rich sports culture (in Japan),” he writes. “. . . I don’t think it’s the government’s role to be aware of the medal counts in the Olympics.”

Hirano appears to accept those criticisms.

“We’re humbled by that and think that we can only respond by producing better athletes that have better personalities,” he says.

At the Elite Academy the student-athletes are required to cultivate three different abilities: athletic competitiveness, intellect and vitality.

Also, the Elite Academy has no intention of having its athletes neglect their academic workload. It also has English and “linguistic technique” lessons for them, which intend to give them communication skills when they go overseas for training camps and competitions.

Nevertheless, they are still focused on athletics more than anything. They still have to spend much of their days training, just as a lot of others at powerhouse clubs at junior highs and high schools in Japan do regularly.

* * *

Miu Hirano, a 14-year-old table tennis player, is one of the prominent athletes at the Elite Academy and has a goal of winning a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. Though she shows no signs of exhaustion, she says that her daily life is busy with nothing but school work and training.

Miu’s problem is that she doesn’t have much free time — time that’s associated with neither school nor table tennis — after dinner, which usually doesn’t start until her evening practice wraps up at about 9 p.m. So she’s only granted a little time until lights-out at the residence at 11 p.m.

“It feels like I really don’t have time,” says Miu, who, at age 13 became one of the youngest winners, along with her partner Mima Ito, on the ITTF Tour circuit with a women’s doubles victory in the German Open on March 30 (Ito isn’t at the Elite Academy.) The pair won another doubles title a week later at the Spanish Open.

“I wasn’t going to bed that early before I came here. I wasn’t going to bed at 11, because I was watching TV and things like that. I had more free time . . .,” Miu said.

“But since I came here, I have practice right after I return from school, and then have only an hour or so after the practice. So it’s tough.”

While average 14-year-old schoolgirls perhaps hit Shibuya and Shinjuku for shopping or chatting with their friends, Miu and other Elite Academy athletes don’t have much opportunity for leisure during their six years at the academy.

At the end of the day, however, they ultimately chose this lifestyle.

Among other table tennis school options, Miu, currently ranked 33rd in the world and first in the under-15 category, made up her mind to enter the Elite Academy because it was where she thought she would become the best she could be and achieve her ultimate goal to obtain future Olympic glory.

* * *

On the day of the interview, while some Elite Academy players, including Miu, were practicing, top female table tennis players Ai Fukuhara and Kasumi Ishikawa, both of whom led their squad to a team silver medal in the world championships in Tokyo in early May, were in the same NTC gymnasium, working on their training regimens.

You probably wouldn’t be able to practice alongside national team athletes anywhere else.

Takahiro Mihara, a girls’ coach for the Elite Academy table tennis squad, thinks that one of the biggest advantages for students to be able to observe world-class, Olympic-level athletes in person.

As Fukuhara and Ishikawa provide mentorship for Miu, Saori Yoshida is someone that the wrestlers admire and the same thing is true with Yuki Ota for the academy’s fencers.

“(Miu) gets stimulated as she can practice alongside players like Kasumi Ishikawa and Ai Fukuhara,” Mihara says. “She can see what kind of practices they are doing, and what they are struggling with, what they are working on, and things like that.”

But given the best circumstances and coaching staff with the superior word “Elite” attached to the program title, the athletes are naturally expected by Japanese citizens to develop into Olympic medal hopefuls in the years to come. That’s the harsh reality, as a result you would think that it puts tons of pressure on their shoulders.

Mihara admits it to himself, saying, “There is (pressure). Those who come here want to win a medal in an Olympics, a gold medal, ultimately. And it’s our job to lead them to where they want to be.”

Miu rejects the idea that she carries mental stress while playing her sport.

“I don’t have any sense that I must win (a medal). I don’t really feel high expectations from outside,” she says with a grin. “I just feel the pressure that I have to be better than I was previously.”

Miu envisions herself competing in the home Olympics in six years’ time (she could even make the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro). She got to see the recent world championships, during which she appeared on a Japanese broadcast as a guest commentator, and the experience made her thoughts for the 2020 Games even stronger.

“I saw there were a lot of people cheering (for the Japanese players), and I was so jealous,” Miu says. “I had wanted to go to (the Tokyo Olympics), but I wasn’t sure how it would actually be like. But I got to know a little about how the Tokyo Games would feel like (through the world championships), and it made me think that I want to be there even more.”

The JOC set a goal to rank in the top three in gold medals earned at the Tokyo Olympics. It will be interesting to see how many of the potential golds are produced by Elite Academy athletes.