• Reuters

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Japan, once a top nation in synchronized swimming that nearly always secured a place on the Olympic podium, is this year struggling to hang onto the team bronze it won in Rio 2016 after already failing to retain duet bronze.

The rising star is Ukraine, which edged Japan for that medal on Wednesday and finished in third place to Japan’s fourth in the team technical event on Friday — a placement that hurts more in an Olympics hosted at home. The Russian team was first and China second.

Though Japan has never won gold since synchronized swimming became an Olympic sport in 1984, it has taken either silver or bronze, in duet or team, every year except for London 2012.

That year it was completely shut out, a fate that may await Japan this year as well, unless it tops Ukraine in the free event on Saturday night.

“To be honest, we were unable to gain the points we thought we had gotten,” Yukiko Inui, 30 and a three-time Olympian, told reporters after the team event on Friday.

It’s a painful situation for a nation where some 30 years ago Olympic synchronized swimmers were household names and there was even a weekly TV drama about a synchronized swimming team.

Today, part of the problem is simply lack of experience.

Japan’s Olympic team has only one Games veteran, Inui, compared to six for the Russian team — including Svetlana Romashina, who this week became the most decorated Olympian in synchronized swimming — and five for China, which took duet silver.

Japanese head coach Masayo Imura said on Friday the lack of recent global competitions due to the pandemic may also play a part, with European teams — which took part in the European championship earlier this year — having had a chance to give the judges fresher impressions.

The last world championship, where Japan finished fourth, was in 2019, and Iimura also wondered if the aesthetics of the sport may have changed since then in a way that disadvantages Japan.

“I keep telling the team that time for us stopped in 2019, and we have to start from there, from that fourth place,” Iimura said, adding that she feels the team has progressed strongly since that time.

“If we keep performing well, the direction of the wind will change. We have to keep doing our best.”

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