Twelve years have passed since Japanese gymnasts won a medal at an Olympics, 20 years since they claimed gold and 28 years since they last triumphed in a team competition at the quadrennial event.

News photoTakehiro Kashima, the world champion in the pommel horse and horizontal bar, is hoping
to spark a revival in gymnastics for former powerhouse Japan.

At the upcoming Olympic Games in Athens, Japan wants to end the medal drought and launch a return to glory days of Japanese gymnastics when the men’s squad won five straight Olympic gold medals between 1960 and 1976.

Perhaps the most promising prospect is Takehiro Kashima, the reigning world champion in pommel horse and horizontal bar who is going after his country’s first pommel-horse Olympic gold — the only men’s gymnastics event not yet won by Japanese.

Kashima, 24, takes full advantage of his 169-cm stature and his long legs in circling and scissoring handsomely around the pommel horse, his specialty apparatus.

“At the Olympics, I want to do everything I can,” says Kashima, who became the first Japanese ever to win a world title in the pommel horse last August in Anaheim, Calif.

Kashima stole the show from Japanese Olympic gymnasts when he won the pommel horse at the 1995 national championships as a 15-year-old, after receiving a special invitation from local meet organizers to take part.

It required seven years before he made his mark internationally by winning the pommel horse bronze at the 2002 apparatus World Championships in Budapest. He went on to capture two individual titles while helping the Japanese team take bronze at last year’s worlds.

“I’m always thinking about the way to get a full 10-point mark,” Kashima said. “That is, to put on a high-quality performance that is different from the others in its beauty and precision.”

“You can’t win in an Olympics unless you have something that makes people say ‘Wow, that’s incredible,’ ” he said.

His routine has a sequence featuring techniques with D and E difficulties toward the end, which makes it more demanding.

China’s Xiao Qin is one of Kashima’s rivals along with Sydney Olympic pommel horse champion Marius Urzica of Romania.

Japan is also hoping for a comeback by Naoya Tsukahara, the 1999 world all-around silver medalist, who will be appearing in his third Olympics and bidding for his first Games medal after overcoming a major slump following the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

In a move likely to assist the 27-year-old both technically and psychologically, his father Mitsuo Tsukahara, the former Olympic gold medal winner known for coming up with the “moonsault” double back flip with a full twist in the horizontal bar, has been named to the coaching staff of the Japanese gymnastics team.

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