Kumiko Ogura and Reiko Shiota have long been awaiting the best possible setting to show that they are more than just badminton pin-up girls.
Ogura and Shiota, nicknamed “Ogu-Shio,” are heading to the Beijing Olympics looking to produce a result that will justify the popularity they have gained through media exposure.
The lively doubles pair can take much of the credit for giving badminton in Japan a degree of attention it has never experienced before. On top of the role they have played as poster girls in recent years, they have grown to prove their true worth on the court and break into the world’s elite ranks.
Expectations became high following last year’s world championships, where Ogu-Shio took the bronze along with the Japanese men’s pair of Shuichi Sakamoto and Shintaro Ikeda. Japan has yet to win an Olympic medal in badminton.
“We know we need to beat some of those strong players from South Korea and China in order to win an Olympic medal and it’s not an easy thing to do,” Ogura said. “We have to improve on our combination play up to the last moment to achieve our goal.”
Ogura and Shiota, who missed out on a spot in the Athens Olympics four years ago, first met when they played each other at an elementary school tournament. Four years later as high school freshmen, they joined up in a one-off doubles team at a national junior training camp and it was perhaps fate that brought them together again on the Sanyo Electric team.
It did not take long before the combination of Ogura’s power play and Shiota’s ability to read the flow of the game helped them develop into one of the most potent doubles pairs in the country.
They won the first of their four national doubles titles in 2004 and went on to capture the 2005 Denmark Open crown, followed by third-place finishes at the Asian Games in December 2006 and last year’s world championships.
The pair’s achievements were impressive enough for them to be picked as “symbol athletes” for the Japanese Olympic Committee’s mainstream marketing program aimed at a limited class of athletes.
As their exposure to the media became more prevalent, their badminton tips DVD became a hit and even their photo book sold as many as 7,500 copies on the day of its release last fall — an exceptional figure for such a publication featuring athletes.
Offers for corporate sponsor deals as well as appearances in TV commercials and ads also increased, to the delight of Ogura and Shiota who believe it was their passion and vigor in lifting badminton from relative obscurity that helped draw such attention.
The true dividends of their efforts are seen in the form of a growing number of players at the grass-roots level.
According to the Nippon Badminton Association, the number of players registered with the national governing body has been rising by roughly 10,000 a year and the upsurge is attributable largely to the “Ogu-Shio” factor.
“I think we’ve got used to it,” Shiota said when asked about the attention they have received in recent years.
“We are playing badminton for the sake of ourselves, not anybody else. But it’s a pleasant experience when people say they took up badminton because of us and it encourages us to produce results on the court,” she said.
As the Olympic year began, Ogura and Shiota tested new combinations of attacking moves designed to complement each other’s weaknesses, notably Shiota’s lack of power and the need to enhance Ogura’s agility, looking ahead to the tournament in Beijing.
The new approach to their game paid off nicely when they won an international tournament for the first time in three years in Osaka in April, giving them a confidence boost ahead of the Olympics.
But their Olympic preparations then suffered a setback when Ogura was sidelined for two months with a lower back injury that has haunted her for years.
With Ogura still nursing her injured back, they have yet to regain full momentum since returning to competition in June, having lost to a fellow Japanese pair in a warmup for the Beijing Games.
A rocky path to the medals podium will follow in the Chinese capital as they have been drawn in a tough section of the women’s doubles tournament.
Ogura and Shiota, currently ranked sixth in the world, will meet 14th-ranked Lena Frier Kristiansen and Kamilla Rytter Juhl of Denmark in the first round. Then they face the prospect of playing the world No. 3 Chinese pair of Du Jing and Yu Yang in the quarterfinals.
“Obviously it’s not an easy draw. But all we have to do is continue training up until then with pictures of our opponents in our mind,” Shiota said after the draw was announced July 26.