Olympics | New Year's Special

Forecasting Japan's top medal hopefuls for 2020 Games

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Japan’s Olympians intend to take the nation by storm with their best-ever results at the 2020 Tokyo Games this summer.

The Japanese Olympic Committee has hammered out a goal of 30 gold medals, nearly doubling its previous record, at the world’s biggest sporting extravaganza. The nation has twice earned 16 gold medals at the Summer Games — at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and 40 years later at the Athens Games.

Japan has shown promise in some of the newly introduced sports for the 2020 Games, including sport climbing and karate, making 30 far from an unrealistic objective.

Here is a list of notable athletes The Japan Times has its eyes on as gold-medal hopefuls who can captivate audiences and help Japan achieve its goal:

Ryo Kiyuna (men’s karate kata)

A dominant athlete in karate, one of five new sports that will be contested at the Tokyo Olympics, Kiyuna is perhaps the surest bet among Japanese athletes for a gold medal.

The 29-year-old has captured titles at the last three world championships in 2014, 2016 and 2018. He is unbeaten since February 2018.

In the kata competition, athletes demonstrate choreographed sequences of techniques as if they are fighting against an invisible opponent.

With multiple karateka performing the same forms and techniques, Kiyuna stands apart with his sharp and powerful punches and kicks.

A longtime karate observer who has frequently covered Kiyuna told The Japan Times that he was “about 95 percent” confident in his chances of winning gold.

In January 2019, the discipline introduced a point system to avoid vagueness in judging, and the observer said that it would help the karateka get closer to a gold medal because of the system’s objectivity.

The Tokyo Olympics will also be a great opportunity for Kiyuna to spread the tradition of Okinawa Prefecture, where karate originated when the islands were known as the Ryukyu Kingdom.

The observer said that Kiyuna is a proud Okinawa native who hopes to raise awareness of the islands’ culture through his performance at the Olympics.

“I was able to conclude this year winning all the titles that I competed in this year,” Kiyuna told reporters after he earned an eighth consecutive national championship title in December.

“Toward next year, I’ll keep my focus on my training.”

Tomoa Narasaki (men’s sport climbing)

Sport climbing is also making its Olympic debut in Tokyo. The winner is somewhat hard to predict because the competition will be held in a format combining bouldering, lead and speed climbing. But it’s probably fair to say that 23-year-old Narasaki has a legitimate chance of becoming the sport’s first Olympic champion.

Narasaki is one of the few climbers who can come up with high placements in the three different disciplines evenly (the standings are decided by multiplying each athlete’s placements in the three, with the lowest number winning). He proved that with stellar results in 2019, which included his gold medal in the combined competition at the world championships in Hachioji.

Ichiro Tsugane, a freelance writer who closely follows the sport, insisted that Narasaki will be the man to beat at the Olympics .

Tsugane said that many people think speed climbing would be a key for Narasaki, but his recent progress in lead climbing has convinced the writer of his championship potential.

That’s because Narasaki is already a decent speed climber. His potential rivals, the Czech Republic’s Adam Ondra and Alex Megos of Germany, both excel in lead climbing but can improve in the speed discipline. Narasaki, with his improved performance in the lead, should be able to achieve better results in all three disciplines.

Narasaki’s specialty is in bouldering, and if he doesn’t finish first in it at the Olympics, it would add an unexpected element to the 20-man competition. But Tsugane said that Narasaki would still have an edge because of his superior balance.

When asked about the possibility of Narasaki missing the podium, Tsugane responded by saying: “It’s hard for me to think he won’t win a medal.”

Women’s basketball team

In Japan, basketball has rapidly gained popularity over the past few years, with the men’s national team grabbing the spotlight.

However, more credit should be given to the women’s national team, which has a shot at nabbing its first-ever Olympic medal in Tokyo after falling to the United States in the Rio 2016 quarterfinals.

Led by American head coach Tom Hovasse, the Akatsuki Five have applied the Stretch Four/Stretch Five offensive strategy, playing the power forward (four) and even the center (five) outside to draw opponents’ inside players to the perimeter in order to minimize their size disadvantage.

The team has also upgraded its outside game by making all its players shoot 3-pointers, while the defense has become more tenacious than before. At the individual level, shifty point guard Nako Motohashi has grown into a reliable scorer.

Japan is 10th in the current world rankings, which is below Australia (second) and China (eighth), both of which compete in the same zone. Japan captured its fourth consecutive FIBA Women’s Asian Cup title by defeating those teams last summer, then cruised past the Aussies again in the Women’s Pre-Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Malaysia in November.

Kento Momota (men’s badminton)

Four years after being banned from the Rio Games for visiting an illegal casino, Momota will be the man to beat in Tokyo’s individual competition.

In fact, barring injuries, his likelihood of winning gold is not far off from Kiyuna or Narasaki.

The 25-year-old Kagawa Prefecture native was nearly invincible in 2019. His numbers speak for themselves: 67 wins from 73 matches and 11 titles out of 15 international tournaments.

Momota also earned a second straight gold at the world championships and was named player of the year by the Badminton World Federation.

Uta Abe (women’s judo)

Equipped with a fascinating smile off the tatami, the 52-kg division judoka is an assassin once she steps onto the mat.

Abe and her older brother Hifumi, who competes in the 66-kg division, both captured gold medals at the 2018 world championships in Baku. The 19-year-old defended her title in the 2019 edition.

Abe, whose signature finishing moves are uchimata and sode tsurikomi goshi, posted 48 consecutive wins against non-Japanese opponents following her 2016 senior debut, a streak which ended in November at the final of the Osaka Grand Slam.

Both Abe and her brother have yet to clinch Olympic spots. But if they do, they will compete on the same day at the Tokyo Games and will be aiming for the highest spot on the podium.

Daiya Seto (men’s swimming)

It’s funny that the man who had been a sidekick to other star swimmers such as Kosuke Hagino and Rikako Ikee is now expected to lead the Tobiuo Japan squad as its ace.

Hagino, Seto’s close friend, rival and Olympic gold medalist, has been in a slump, while Ikee is recovering from leukemia.

At the FINA World Swimming Championships in South Korea in July, Seto finished first in the men’s 200- and 400-meter individual medleys and also earned the silver in the 200 butterfly.

Japan claimed seven medals in swimming at the 2016 Summer Games, and Seto, a Saitama Prefecture native, will be called upon to add several medals to the nation’s tally in Tokyo.

Abdul Hakim Sani Brown (men’s track and field)

Despite notching a national record of 9.97 seconds in the 100 last year while competing for the University of Florida, the 20-year-old sprinter is not considered a strong medal hopeful in the individual disciplines. For him, it would take a remarkable effort just to reach the finals.

His 9.97 mark in the 100 was tied for the 13th-fastest time in the world last year, while his 20.08 in the 200 was 18th.

But Sani Brown, whose father is Ghanaian and mother is Japanese, will still be one of the athletes who draws attention from local fans.

Japan hopes to capture its first-ever 4×100 relay gold in a global meet at the games and Sani Brown, who turned pro late last year, would be an instrumental figure in making it happen.

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