Japan off to slow start in Sochi


It’s still early at 2014 Winter Olympics, but for Japan, Sochi is looking more like a repeat of the 2006 Torino Games than the 2010 Vancouver Olympics so far.

For a team that set a goal of five gold medals — and 10 medals in all — Joji Kato and Keiichiro Nagashima’s defeat in the men’s speedskating 500 meters on Monday was nothing short of a crushing blow.

“We were beaten, comprehensively,” said Vancouver bronze medalist Kato, who finished fifth as the powerful Dutch trio of Michel and Ronald Mulder and Jan Smeekens swept the podium. “We didn’t stand a chance.”

Nagashima, the 2010 silver medalist, finished sixth and was in tears following the race.

“I just wasn’t good enough,” he said. “That’s all there is to say, really.”

Either Kato or Nagashima was expected to win Japan’s first medal of these Winter Games after Aiko Uemura’s near miss in the women’s moguls (fourth), and disappointing performances from Mao Asada, Akiko Suzuki and Tatsuki Machida left the nation in fifth place in the inaugural figure skating team event.

Japan collected just one medal in 2006 — Shizuka Arakawa’s gold in women’s figure skating — but bounced back four years later with five medals, three silvers and two bronze.

There is still 13 days of competition left, and with 17-year-old Sara Takanashi the overwhelming gold-medal favorite in women’s ski jumping, which takes place Tuesday, Japan could be on the medals table soon.

But whether Japan can leave Sochi with the 10 medals it’s targeted is looking like a shaky proposition following Kato and Nagashima’s flop, and the emergence of 15-year-old Russian figure skating sensation Julia Lipnitskaya, who some now say could dethrone reigning women’s champion Kim Yu-na and help keep Asada and Suzuki out of the medals altogether.

Apart from Takanashi, 19-year-old figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu may be Japan’s best shot at gold.

Hanyu comfortably won the short program in the team event by more than six points, over local favorite and Vancouver silver medalist Evgeni Plushenko, with three-time defending world champion Patrick Chan finishing third.

Yet beyond the teenage pair of Takanashi and Hanyu, there certainly aren’t any sure things for Japan, which would be left with a lot of work to do for the next Winter Games in 2018 — in Pyeongchang, South Korea, where the pressure to perform will be even higher.