Japan looks to boost medal count as Paralympics commence

Kyodo

The Winter Olympics may have ended, but there is plenty more high-level competition to come in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

The Winter Paralympics kick off on Friday, with the promise of awe-inspiring feats by athletes with disabilities. The games run through March 18.

Japan’s hopes of improving on its six medals at the 2014 Sochi Games (three gold, one silver, two bronze) rest on its prolific Alpine skiing team.

The team features three-time gold medalist Akira Kano and Sochi gold medalist Takeshi Suzuki, as well as back-to-back overall World Cup champion Taiki Morii. All three are competing in the sitting category, in which the athletes pilot sit-skis on various courses using hand-held outriggers to assist balance when making turns.

Morii is hunting for his first Paralympic gold, having competed at the past four games with silver as his best result. “This time, I want a better color,” he said before departing for South Korea.

Alpine skiing consists of several events that demand different skills — downhill and super-G focus on speed, while slalom and giant slalom require turning technique. Super combined consists of a run each on the super-G and slalom courses.

Among the female Japanese Alpine skiers, Momoka Muraoka (sitting) is best poised to medal after a strong 2017-2018 season in which she won her first World Cup event in super-G. She will be up against Germany’s Anna Schaffelhuber, who achieved a golden sweep of every sitting alpine event in Sochi.

As Japan’s flag-bearer, Muraoka will also lead her country into Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremony.

“There’s a real weight to it (the flag), you know. It’s really sinking in that the Paralympics are here,” she said.

North Korea, which stole Olympic headlines with its colorful cheerleading squad and the appearance of leader Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, will be participating in its first Winter Paralympics. Two cross-country skiers in the sitting category will fly the North’s flag.

Japan’s best Nordic skiing hope, Yoshihiro Nitta (standing), hopes to cast aside a disappointing Sochi performance and relive the glory of bagging two cross-country gold medals in Vancouver. The 37-year-old, who first represented his country in both biathlon and cross-country at home during the 1998 Nagano Games, will be competing in his sixth Paralympics.

Snowboarding, now a standalone sport after making its Paralympic debut in Sochi as part of Alpine skiing, will see Gurimu Narita attempt to dethrone reigning snowboard cross champion Evan Strong of the United States.

The younger brother of two Olympians and himself a former Olympic freestyle skiing hopeful, Narita also hopes to strike gold in the newly-added banked slalom.

Meanwhile, Atsushi Yamamoto is set to steal the spotlight despite being a newcomer to the snowboarding scene. He is arguably Japan’s most famous para-athlete thanks to his silver medals in long jump at the 2008 and 2016 Summer Paralympics.

Japan’s para ice hockey team will be looking to prove age is just a number. The team has an average age of over 41 and its oldest player, goalie Shinobu Fukushima, is 61. The team won silver in 2010, but failed to qualify in 2014 due to a lack of fresh talent, leading several players to come out of retirement.

The sport allows six players, men or women, per team on the rink at a time with frequent substitutions, like ice hockey, with the hard knocks to match. Players use specially-made sleds and a stick in each hand with metal spikes on the handle end that are used to propel the players across the ice.

Japan will sit out wheelchair curling after failing to qualify. Canada has its sights set on adding a fourth consecutive gold medal, having come out on top every time since the sport joined the Paralympic program in 2006.

Russia will not field a team at the games after being banned for state-sanctioned doping, but 30 athletes who have cleared tests will be allowed to compete as “neutrals.”

These athletes will be prohibited from displaying the Russian flag or playing the national anthem, akin to the treatment of the Olympic Athletes from Russia at the Pyeongchang Games.