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Marquee meet provides valuable testing ground for Japanese fencers

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

They do not have ample time to develop before the Tokyo Olympics. But Japanese fencers and their coaches are in no rush.

At the FIE Fencing World Cup Tokyo meet, the Japanese participants did not meet their goals. None of them got past the round of 32 in the men’s individual foil competition as Japan finished fifth in the team event.

Nonetheless, they stayed positive, acknowledging they still have tons of work to do.

“To be honest, I was stung by my result yesterday (in the individual competition),” Kyosuke Matsuyama said after the three-day tournament wrapped up at Minato-ku Sports Center on Sunday. “But the individual and team competitions are completely different animals. It’s important for you to get momentum in the team competition. And we were able to take advantage of the support at our home today. After all, I felt good as if I can forget yesterday’s performance.”

There are three disciplines — foil, epee and sabre — and eight nations in each will compete in the team events at the 2020 Olympics. The participating countries will be determined based on world rankings, which are based on points earned in World Cup and Grand Prix competitions, the world championship and other international events. The qualifications will kick off in April and end in the same month next year.

In order to secure a spot in the Olympics, Japan will need to defeat South Korea. The host team fell to South Korea 45-36 in the round of eight at the Tokyo meet. Japan is currently ranked No. 6 in the discipline in the world, while South Korea is fourth. Japan now looks ahead to avenging its loss to South Korea at June’s Asian championships to get a big boost in the Olympic qualification race.

“We were aiming for a medal, but a fifth-place finish wasn’t too bad,” said the 22-year-old Matsuyama, who is considered Japan’s ace foil fencer. “And toward the Olympic qualification season, we found some positive things.”

Developing the squad

Oleg Matseichuk, who has served as a coach for the Japan foil team since 2003, reminded the media that the squad consists of mostly younger fencers.

“The home World Cup in Tokyo was very important for us,” the Ukrainian said. “But we need more time (for our fencers to get experienced) and hopefully we’ll be better.”

Matsuyama said that it would be a key for the young Japanese fencers, including himself, to build confidence by performing well at the international events. He added that it is one of the major advantages for younger athletes like them that they can grow faster than older ones.

“We can improve, even during a match,” Matsuyama said. “Being a young fencer, you often find chances to get better during a match, or even just one moment. That said, we have bigger room to grow.”

Toshiya Saito, who earned silver in the individual foil competition at the world championships two years ago, said: “There’s nothing but positiveness in ourselves. We would like to keep the momentum to get in the Asian championships.”

Raising the sport’s profile

Meanwhile, former Japanese great Yuki Ota warned that the nation’s fencers need to be more serious about winning if they genuinely want to accomplish the goal of earning medals at the Olympics.

Ota, who now serves as the Japan Fencing Federation president, said that the current Japanese athletes have “better techniques” than he had as a fencer but that the competitions are not skill contests.

“It’s about who’s more competitive,” said Ota, who collected a pair of Olympic medals, a silver in the men’s individual foil at the 2008 Beijing Games and a silver in the team foil event at the 2012 London Games.

“It’s about how much you want to win, the greediness to win. I’ve been used to seeing skillful players. I want them to become ones that can win.”

Last weekend, Ota was quite busy. He was not only focused on the athletes’ performance, but also on how the event entertained fans.

The 33-year-old has spearheaded efforts to raise the popularity of the sport since he assumed the post in 2017. For the World Cup Tokyo meet, Ota decided there would be no admission fee for spectators and made the space around the strips available for them as well so that they could enjoy the action up close.

In addition, event organizers provided an in-house announcing, distributing hand-held radios to fans. Listening to the live broadcast helped give them a better opportunity to comprehend the sport.

Those efforts paid off, as evidenced by the attendance figures. Ota reported on his Twitter account that the combined attendance at this year’s Tokyo meet increased from 500 in 2016 and 1,600 in 2018 to 5,248 this year.

But Ota, who became an International Fencing Federation vice president last month, is not fully satisfied with the status quo.

“We’d set our goal to draw about 8,000,” said Ota, who captured an individual foil gold medal at the 2015 world championships in Moscow. “We have not been able to reach (non-fencing fans) as well as we would like to yet, so we have lots of things we have to reflect on.”

Ota is eager to offer fans something that they have not seen anywhere else. At the national championships in December, the sport’s national governing body used Globe Tokyo, a theater, to create an entertaining atmosphere.

Ota revealed that the federation would unveil another surprise at the national championships later this year.