A 61-year-old shoemaker based in Fukuoka has played his part in Japan’s Beijing Winter Olympic speedskating medal-winning exploits by getting his shoes on the feet of some of the nation’s best.
Hisataka Oi has a group of ambassadors that speak for themselves, like Wataru Morishige, who won bronze in the men’s 500 meters, and Tatsuya Shinhama, who finished 20th in the same event held Feb. 12 at the National Speed Skating Oval.
As a former short track speedskater himself, Oi knows the importance of having footwear that fits properly and takes his job very seriously.
“Footwear makes a difference in speed, as much as 0.1 seconds. Poor shoes means poor performance,” Oi said.
Oi has a home workspace that is filled with plaster molds that capture the proper shape and contour of his athletes’ feet. He makes between 40 and 50 pairs of skating shoes per year.
Oi started speedskating in sixth grade, encouraged by his father who learned the sport in Northeast China when it was known as Manchuria. The younger Oi forged a successful career, winning the national invitational event before retiring at age 29.
After retiring he took up a coaching position in a local speed skating club in Fukuoka, but he started designing shoes for his pupils when the price of skating shoes shot up in the 1990s as carbon fiber became a popular choice of material.
Since then he has helped countless athletes with custom skates specially tailored to their needs. Oi’s custom shoemaking process begins by measuring foot size accurately.
He travels to the skaters to make foot molds and then crafts shoes one centimeter smaller than the measured size. Breaking in skates is a painful process, but top-level skaters know there is gain in the pain, he says.
“A normal person wouldn’t be able to wear them because they’re painful, but a skater will find tight-fitting shoes better for stability and the ability to transfer force in their strides,” Oi said.
The master craftsman behind the Japanese Olympic skaters’ footwear has become so renowned that he gets orders from corporate speedskating teams and powerhouse high school clubs.
Keiichiro Nagashima and Joji Kato, the silver and bronze medalists in the men’s 500 meters at the 2010 Vancouver Games, owe a large part of their Olympic success to Oi’s bespoke, almost art-like creations.
The 21-year-old Morishige, who in Beijing won Japan’s first men’s speedskating Olympic medal since Nagashima and Kato, had his skating shoes made when he was a senior in high school.
His high school coach entrusted Oi to make the ideal skate shoes for Morishige, and Oi made them harder than the average shoe. He used more carbon, which is a very stiff material, for a tight fit and increased performance.
The only time Oi meets athletes face-to-face is for the first measurement. But he handles every aspect of the shoemaking process, down to the last stitch. And he watches closely when the skaters come on, hoping to catch a glimpse of his work on television.
Unfortunately, neither of his customers, Morishige or Shinhama, were able to reach the podium in the 1,000 on Friday. But Oi is keeping his fingers crossed they will remain loyal to his products.
“If they come to me again I want to make them the perfect shoes. I hope they get their revenge in the next games,” he said.