With less than a month to go until the Beijing Olympics, a group of craftsmen mainly in a Tokyo shitamachi blue-collar district is trying for the third time to get their sleds used in Olympic bobsleigh competitions.
As their sleds were not used by any national team in the past two Winter Olympic Games, members had considered dissolving their group.
After their bitter experience, they are now pinning their hopes on the Beijing Games, set to open on Feb. 4, with a possibility that the Italian team may adopt their sleds.
Tomoyuki Goto, 37, was seen working on a sled quietly alone at a welding factory in Tokyo’s Ota Ward, a shitamachi area, last month.
“The key is how to weld parts without creating strain. I take care so that the sleds can log good times but will not break due to vibrations,” said Goto, in charge of the welding process in the project.
The Shitamachi Bobsleigh project kicked off in 2011 to make the first Japanese-made sleds for bobsleigh competitions, in hopes of showing the world the skills of craftsmen involved in metal processing tasks, such as cutting, welding and polishing. Ota Ward hosts many factories with workers skilled in such work.
But the project struggled. The Japanese national team did not use their sleds at the 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia.
At the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics in South Korea, Jamaica’s team canceled a contract to use their sleds just before the opening of the Games.
Kotaro Kurosaka, 52, became head of the project after the Pyeongchang Games, worrying that the project might die.
But he decided to revive it, thinking, “We mustn’t let the experience accumulated by those who have been involved so far disappear.”
In March 2021, the project received a positive response from Italy’s national team following test runs.
The number of businesses participating in the project has fallen to some 20 from about 100 at its peak, increasing burdens on member companies sharing the work to make some 200 parts per sled.
The companies worked on sleds in spare time during their normal work hours or in overtime hours. Improvements have been made to enhance the cornering performance and strength of the sleds, each of which weighs about 150 kilograms.
The Shitamachi Bobsleigh group made two two-seater sleds in about four months after starting design work in August 2021.
The Italian team plans to decide whether to adopt the sleds for the Beijing Olympics as early as the middle of this month after using them in world championships.
The city of Sapporo aims to host the 2030 Winter Olympics. For bobsleigh, Sapporo plans to use a sledding arena in Nagano Prefecture.
Kurosaka said he is looking forward to test runs that might be held in Nagano.
He dreams of the day when shitamachi sleds will be adopted by the Japanese national Olympic team for use at home. “Sleds and athletes would form an all-Japan team for Olympic competitions.”
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