Yudai Nitta making most of chance at Asian Games

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

For veteran track cyclist Yudai Nitta, the experience of competing at the Olympics can’t be traded for anything.

With that it in mind, he considers participating in the Asian Games as a way to gain invaluable experience and as a rehearsal for the Summer Games.

This particular Asiad in Indonesia was even more significant for Nitta, with the next Olympics set to be held in his home country.

“I didn’t get to compete at the last one, but this is my third Asian Games,” Nitta said after earning silver in the men’s keirin at the Jakarta International Velodrome on Friday. “I’d say it makes a difference when you use the Asian Games as a springboard to competing at the Olympics.”

Nitta led the six-cyclist pack at one point during Friday’s race but allowed Thailand’s Jai Angsuthasawit to go ahead at the final stretch to settle for the runner-up spot.

The 32-year-old captured a team sprint gold at the 2006 Asiad in Doha, adding silver and bronze medals to his collection at the 2010 edition in Guangzhou. The medal he won on Friday was his second of this year’s games after having helped Japan to bronze in the men’s team sprint.

The organization and atmosphere of the Asian Games are similar to those of the Olympics, according to Nitta, who believes experiencing the competition provides a mental advantage in Olympic competition.

Nitta almost missed the trip to Jakarta after he suffered severe bruising from a crash just two days before his departure from Japan.

“I hurt my inner thigh and neck. And it was so severe a crash that it smashed the frame (of my bicycle),” Nitta recalled.

The thought of withdrawing from the Asian Games crossed his mind, but he remained committed to participating in part because the chances to compete in an Olympic-like environment are rare.

Nitta usually competes as a keirin cyclist in Japan, but his Olympic aspirations were inspired by speed skater Hiroyasu Shimizu and his gold medal-winning performance at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano.

Nitta competed at the 2012 London Olympics and finished eighth in the men’s team sprint, but failed to earn a berth for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games.

After missing out on a spot in Brazil, he formed a track cycling team called “Dream Seeker” with the purpose of making track cycling even bigger in Japan.

“I began cycling because I wanted to compete at the Olympics and win a medal there. And I wanted to commit to doing it thoroughly,” Nitta said in describing his motivations for starting the team.

“The inspiration of competing at the Olympics, it’s something you don’t know unless you’ve actually competed there. You can make money out of competing in keirin (in Japan), but it’s not about that. I want to fight on that (Olympic) stage one more time and leave something for younger generations.”

Nitta said he was also influenced by Yuki Ota, a two-time Olympic fencing silver medalist who currently serves as president of the Japan Fencing Federation. As the face of Japanese fencing, the 32-year-old has been active in trying to provide more entertainment in the sport in order to raise fencing’s profile among the public.

“I’ve felt the same,” Nitta said of what Ota has tried to accomplish. “You have to think of how you act as an athlete. You have to keep spreading the message, not just focus on competing.”

Meanwhile, Nitta’s countryman Yuta Wakimoto was frustrated with his own performance in the men’s keirin final.

Wakimoto came to Indonesia looking for a gold medal, but fell far short of that goal with a fifth-place finish as he competed alongside Nitta.

With a few laps to go, Wakimoto made a move to improve his position but it didn’t work out. He said he’d thought about whether or not to take off and that hesitating for that split second cost him the race.

The pressure of competing in an event held only once every four years, like the Olympics, may have effected his judgement.

Wakimoto cited mental weakness as the reason for the result, but kept his head high because he believes any experience he can gain will help him become a better cyclist going forward and ultimately excel at the Tokyo Olympics.

“I know what I have to do more clearly now,” said Wakimoto, who also finished fifth in keirin at the 2012 London Games. “I think I certainly gained experience I can take advantage of ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.”

Along with judo, keirin is one of the few Olympics sports which originated in Japan. As a result, cyclists like Nitta and Wakimoto feel a sense a responsibility to earn medals for Japan at Tokyo 2020.