PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA - With figure skating golden boy Yuzuru Hanyu looking increasingly like his afflicted ankle can bear the weight of a nation’s hopes, Japan sees Pyeongchang Olympics as a high-promise medal mission.
While the spotlight will be fully on Hanyu, his drama will be unfolding on a grand and historic stage. Not only will the Pyeongchang Games be the largest Winter Olympics in history, they arrive on Friday amid hopes of peace on the Korean Peninsula and the yet unresolved shadow of doping in sport.
The spectacle will involve nearly 3,000 competitors representing 91 national Olympic committees, in addition to “Korea” for a joint North-South Korean women’s ice hockey team, and group of Olympic-eligible Russians, whose national committee has been banished over doping.
Still, the heart of the games is competition, and Japan craves a good result ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and a possible bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics by Sapporo. And the 23-year-old Hanyu is, if not the key, at least the focus of Japan’s campaign.
After weeks of speculation over whether the reigning world champion would be able to recover in time from the injury that put his Olympics in peril, his coach Brian Orser gave Japan and Hanyu’s global band of adoring fans the news they so badly desired.
“Never underestimate Mr. Hanyu. A solid yes, he will be 100 percent,” Orser said when asked whether Hanyu would be fit to bid for consecutive men’s Olympic titles, a feat last achieved by American Dick Button in 1948 and 1952.
“He got injured early and that was that,” Orser said of the injury Hanyu sustained practicing for the NHK Trophy in November.
“(There were) no nationals (for him), no Grand Prix Final, so it will be nice to see him back on the ice where he belongs. It’s a long time (away), but he can handle it. I am really confident and I believe in him and he believes in himself,” the Canadian said.
“Every day he just keeps getting better and stronger. It’s been pretty remarkable. It hasn’t been easy but I am very proud of him.”
While Hanyu is undoubtedly one of the Olympics’ biggest stars, he is only one of a number of Japanese athletes poised to perform well in South Korea, with a number of intriguing story lines going in tandem with their gold medal bids.
Even if Hanyu crashes and burns, 20-year-old world silver medalist Shoma Uno is patiently waiting for his shot to steal the plaudits on his Olympic debut, with the lack of expectations likely boosting his already sizable ambition.
“Before beating anybody else I have to beat myself,” said Uno, adding that the Olympics are just “a stop-off point in my figure skating career.”
In speedskating, Nao Kodaira has been in unstoppable form but faces a significant women’s 500 meters challenger in South Korea’s two-time defending Olympic champion Lee Sang-hwa, the world and Olympic record holder over the sprint distance.
Kodaira, a 31-year-old Nagano native, is also the favorite in the 1,000 meters, having recently smashed the world record in Salt Lake City, Utah.
A gold for Kodaira would be especially poignant, with her wanting to pay tribute to former teammate and close friend Miyako Sumiyoshi, who died last month at her home in Nagano, aged just 30.
“She was a source of support for me when I was going through tough times and her family has asked me to try my best for Miyako. I want to put all my strength out there on the Pyeongchang stage.”
Long-distance specialist Miho Takagi is also in contention for speed skating gold, with the women’s pursuit her best chance. With her sister Nana and Ayano Sato, Takagi set a new pursuit world record, on the Salt Lake City ice in December.
Sara Takanashi will be looking to erase the heartbreak of finishing fourth in Sochi four years ago. There, she was widely expected to win the first-ever women’s ski jumping gold having arrived in Russia as the winner of all but three of the season’s preceding 13 World Cup events, breaking the single-season record for most victories.
“I am happy I can return (to the Olympics) and I have trained really well and am 90 percent ready,” the 21-year-old Takanashi said after arriving in South Korea on Tuesday.
“I think I have managed to prepare the way I wanted and overcome the things that needed to be addressed. Now, I just want to fine-tune ahead of the competition.”
In scintillating form, Nordic combined’s Akito Watabe has said he is using Zen meditation to provide him with the balance to go one better than the silver medal he won in Sochi.
Watabe won four straight World Cup meets before his streak ended with a third-place finish on home soil on Sunday.
“I use Zen to keep my mind calm. I meditate when I need it, like before leaving the hotel for competition,” Watabe told olympic.org.
“It allows me to accept everything. What has happened and what will happen. It allows me to let go and focus on what I have to do.”
Moguls skier Ikuma Horishima recently ended Canadian Mikael Kingsbury’s record World Cup event win streak at 13 and could spring another surprise with a win in South Korea, while Sochi silver medalist Ayumu Hirano is promising something spectacular in the men’s halfpipe having recently taken X Games superpipe gold with a never-before-seen run.
“I’ve done what I need to get done,” said the 19-year-old Hirano. “I’m preparing to deliver a performance that I have never shown anybody before.”
The Japanese Olympic Committee has set a goal of winning at least nine medals, including multiple gold, which, if the team performs, would surpass the eight won in Sochi — Japan’s largest haul in any overseas Winter Games.
But it could get even better.
Japan was on Wednesday forecast by sports statistics experts Gracenote Sports to achieve its best performance at any Winter Games.
With 14 medals predicted on the company’s Virtual Medal Table — three gold, seven silver and four bronze — the Netherlands-based statisticians say Japan could take podiums across six different sports, more than ever before.
Japan’s previous best Winter Olympic performance was at Nagano in 1998 where the team took 10 medals on home soil.
With Sapporo considering a bid for 2026, Japan has much at stake.
It has been suggested that the International Olympic Committee and its president, Thomas Bach, favors a city from Europe or North America to host in 2026 following three straight Asian Olympics — Pyeongchang, Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022.
But with negative public responses to the huge cost of delivering the games derailing a number of bids, and a warmer global climate further reducing the list of potential hosts, a Sapporo bid may stumble over the line.