Olympians get spirited sendoff

by and

Four years after Japan’s best-ever performance in the Summer Olympics — a 37-medal effort in Athens — the nation is gearing up for 2008’s biggest sporting extravaganza in style.

On Monday evening at the Prince Park Tower hotel in Tokyo, the Japan Olympic Committee held its official sendoff reception for the 2008 Japan Olympic squad.

Of this year’s 576-member official delegation (coaches, athletes, officials, support staff), 359 attended the event. An estimated 2,000 guests were there, including Crown Prince Naruhito, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai.

Judo star Keiji Suzuki, the Japan Olympic captain and 2004 gold medalist in the heavyweight division, and Ai Fukuhara, the one-time table tennis prodigy who will carry the Hinomaru during the Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing on Aug. 8, were among the prominent athletes who spoke to reporters and greeted the guests.

“I’m pleased to see the athletes and officials that will participate in the 29th Olympics tournament held in Beijing,” the Crown Prince said. “For the athletes, I’d like to give congratulations to them for having been selected as the Japanese representatives and attending this sendoff reception.”

In this era of globalism, the Crown Prince said, the Olympics have truly become a worldwide event, noting more than 200 nations will compete in 28 sports and 302 events during the Beijing Olympics.

“I would like to hope that you will exchange friendship through sports by competing with the best athletes of the world,” the Crown Prince told Japan’s Olympians.

Cui echoed the Crown Prince’s sentiments, telling the crowd sports can play a positive role in improving international relations.

“As the host country, the Chinese citizens are waiting for the Olympics to kick off,” Cui said. “We’re ready to welcome and accept those who come to our country from all over the world. There’s an atmosphere to welcome the Olympics anywhere.

“Since President Hu Jintao visited Japan this year, our friendship has grown deeper.”

Switching between formal and casual conversation, Fukuda spoke excitedly about the upcoming Olympics and reminded the audience he was born in an Olympic year (1936).

“It’s finally 10 days until the Olympics,” Fukuda said. “The athletes and officials have shown a great deal of effort, and I’d like to say congratulations from the bottom of my heart.”

The Olympic Games, he added, provide a chance for the world to see young Japanese adults competing and excelling in a wide range of sporting events.

“It makes your heart leap,” were the words he used to describe the start of the Olympics.

“And once it starts, everyone sits in front of TVs. I’ll probably end up doing the same,” Fukuda said. “I’d like them to do their best and perform to the maximum they have.”

One of the biggest topics of discussion Monday night was Japan’s stellar medal count in Athens. Japan’s 37 medals in 2004 were the sixth-highest total in the world. Fukuda wasn’t the only person at the hotel saying he hopes Japan’s medal count will be higher in Beijing; hundreds more blurted out “ganbare” — do your best — to the Olympians.

At a formal party in the hotel ballroom, where J-Pop singer Ayaka performed a spirited rendition of “Jupiter,” JOC president Tsunekazu Takeda said he hopes Japan’s Olympians make their people proud in China.

“I’d like the delegates to carry the responsibility and self-awareness as the Japanese representatives, and do their best so they can live up to the citizens’ expectations,” Takeda said.

On Aug. 9, the judo competition begins in Beijing. So a day after the pomp of the opening ceremony, Suzuki will begin his quest for a second straight gold.

Suzuki embraces the challenge, as well as the enjoyment that comes from being the face of the nation for these Olympics.

“As the sendoff ceremony finished, I feel like I’ve done something as the captain for the first time,” Suzuki said with a smile. “As the captain, I’d just like to give momentum for the Japanese team through judo.”

Several hundred reporters gathered to hear Olympians’ comments and capture their excitement prior to departing for Beijing.

Said Fukuhara: “As the sendoff ceremony is over, I’m relieved that I’ve done one of my jobs. I’d like to do another job at the opening ceremony, and then would like to do my best in my events from the 13th (of August).”

The Japan baseball team, meanwhile, did not have player representatives at the ceremony. Nippon Professional Baseball had six games on Monday night, and so Japan manager Senichi Hoshino felt compelled to point this out.

“I wanted to bring our players rather than us (coaches and staff),” Hoshino said, “because there were athletes (from the other Olympic sports) that have made challenge after challenge and won the spots for this event that’s held only once every four years.”