April Sports Wrap-Up: Chips Are Down for Badminton, Sunwolves Break Losing Streak

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Illegal gambling costs badminton star Kento Momota a place at the Olympics, but for a number of other Japanese athletes’ serious preparations can now begin for Rio with qualification decided in many sports. With less than 100 days to go to the Games we take a look at how Japan’s swimming and judo teams are shaping up. In other sporting news this month Shinji Okazaki’s Leicester City march on, the Sunwolves finally win, Takashi Uchiyama is finally beaten and there’s a top ten finish at the Masters for Hideki Matsuyama.

Badminton A visit to a casino often ends up with a punter losing quite a bit of money. In Kento Momota’s case his six visits cost him not only cash (allegedly ¥500,000), but also more devastatingly a place on the Japan team for the Rio Olympics. Ranked number two in the world, he was seen as one of the country’s top gold medal prospects for the Games, but will now have to watch it all unfold from home after being suspended indefinitely. While there have been movements by the LDP to open casinos in order to boost tourism in Japan, it remains an illegal activity here with the possibility of a prison sentence. The 21 year old dyed his hair black as an act of contrition and appeared in front of the cameras to apologize for his actions. Six-time Japan champion Kenichi Tago – who reportedly lost more than ¥10 million gambling at casinos – took responsibility saying he persuaded Momota to go with him. He begged the Japanese Badminton Association to let the youngster compete at the Olympics, but it was all in vain as he was banned anyway. Kenta Nishimoto also admitted to visiting casinos at least twice last year. Ayaka Takahashi and Misaki Matsutomo defeated Naoko Fukuman and Kurumi Yonao 21-13, 21-15 in the doubles final at the Asian Championships.

Swimming There will be no fourth Olympics for quadruple gold medalist Kosuke Kitajima. The 33 year old failed to make the qualifying times for the 100m and 200m breaststroke races at the national championships and subsequently retired from the sport. It was a disappointing way for Japan’s most decorated Olympic swimmer to bow out. Fortunately there is a new generation of swimmers capable of making a big impression in Rio. Kosuke Hagino appears like the man most likely to follow in Kitajima’s footsteps. The 21 year old looked very impressive at the National Championships, qualifying in five races. Six years younger, but also looking very strong, is Rikako Ikee who qualified in four, three of them relays. She broke down in tears after winning the 100m butterfly. Other standout performances at the tournament included Rie Kaneto who missed out on the world record in the 200m breaststroke by just 0.54 seconds; Kanako Watanabe and Ryosuke Irie who both qualified in multiple events; Daiya Seto, who’ll represent his country in the 200m and 400m individual medley and Natsumi Sakai, the youngest qualifier at just 14 years of age. The Japan Swimming Federation is sending a total of 34 swimmers to the Games: the most since Tokyo in 1964.

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Hagino is Japanese swimming’s new man to follow

Boxing Takashi Uchiyama is widely considered Japan’s greatest pound-for-pound boxer and was the big favorite for his bout with Panama’s Jezreel Corrales. Going into the contest the Japanese man had a record of 24 wins (20 by knockout), one draw and no losses. It was the 12th defense of his WBA super featherweight title as he looked to chase down Yoko Gushiken’s Japanese record of 13 title defenses between 1976 and 1981. Those hopes disappeared inside two rounds, though, as southpaw Corrales produced a string of powerful punches to floor the shaken 36 year old. Uchiyama – known as “Knockout Dynamite” – managed to get up twice, but the referee had to stop it once he was put down for a third time by an impressive left hook. After the fight he refused to comment on his future. On the undercard Ryoichi Taguchi defended his WBA light flyweight crown for a third time after an impressive performance against Venezuela’s Juan Landaeta. The fight was stopped in the 11th round. Super flyweight champion Kohei Kono also defended his title for a third time, defeating Thai challenger Inthanon Sithchamuang on points.

Rugby At the start of the season it was said that the Sunwolves would be out of their depth playing Super Rugby. Following seven straight defeats, including a humiliating 92-17 loss to the Cheetahs, it was hard to disagree. Yet for all their struggles – particularly on set-pieces – the team does have a lot of heart and managed to recover from that hammering against the Cheetahs to record their first ever Super Rugby win a week later. Trailing 18-13 at half-time to Argentinian side Jaguares, the Japanese team rallied in the second period to win 36-28 with former Samoa fly-half Tusi Pisi kicking 18 points. Prior to that game Eddie Jones had described the Sunwolves as “embarrassing for Japanese rugby.” In a frank interview with Kyodo News the former national coach also had some words of advice for Ayumu Goromaru. “You see him, all he’s been doing (is) commercials, practicing eating chahan (fried rice), practicing drinking beer. I went to Japan two weeks ago, every time I turned on the television Goromaru was on. I was thinking I don’t want to see Goromaru eat chahan, I don’t want to see him drink beer, I want to see him kick goals in a game of rugby. And you can’t be doing both.”

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Golf Jones used Ryo Ishikawa as an example when talking about the pitfalls of appearing in too many commercials. The youngster was already viewed as a superstar before he’d turned professional and subsequently his face was plastered on various advertisements all over the country. Having failed to make the cut at a Major since 2013, it is fair to say he has failed to live up to expectations. Hideki Matsuyama, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have any interest in being in the limelight. His sole focus is golf and his game as flourished as a result. The 24 year old is currently ranked 12th in the world and recently tied for seventh at the Masters in Augusta following on from his fifth-place finish there last year. Going into the final day he was joint third, just two shots behind leader and defending champion Jordan Spieth. A nightmare opening six holes that included three bogies and a double-bogey effectively ended his chances. Things improved on the back nine, but it was too late to challenge for the green jacket. In the end Matsuyama finished five strokes behind winner Danny Willett. The 66/1 outsider became the first Englishman since Nick Faldo in 1996 to win the tournament. The wait for the first ever Japanese player to win a Major goes on.

Football Asako Takakura has been named as the first ever female coach of the women’s national side. A former midfielder with Nadeshiko, she has managed Japan at U17, U20 and U23 level. The four-time Asian women’s coach of the year replaces Norio Sasaki who led the side to two World Cup finals and an Olympic silver medal. In England Shinji Okazaki’s Leicester City side were unbeaten in April in their march towards the most astonishing Premier League title in history. The first (and up to now, the last) Japanese player to win it was of course Shinji Kagawa. He has been in fine form recently scoring four goals in the last seven games. His Dortmund side remain second in the Bundesliga five points behind leaders Bayern Munich with two games to play. They’ve also reached the German Cup final. In Italy Yuto Nagatomo signed a contract extension with Inter Milan. On the domestic front Urawa Reds hold a two point lead over Kawasaki Frontale. They also reached the knockout stages of the Asian Champions League. F.C Tokyo have a chance of joining them if they win their final group match. Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Gamba Osaka have both been eliminated.

Judo The All Japan Judo Federation announced the squad for the Rio Olympics in 13 classes after the All-Japan invitational weight class championships at the Fukuoka Convention Center. The eagerly anticipated clash between Ami Kondo and Haruna Asami in the 48kg division never materialized as the latter was surprisingly knocked out in the first round. 2014 world champion Kondo defeated Hiromi Endo in the final to book her place in Brazil. Misato Nakamura claimed the 52kg crown for the sixth successive time. 2012 Olympic champion Kaori Matsumoto went out in the semi-finals in the 57kg category, but was selected for the Games anyway because of her performances in international competitions. The other three female judoka selected for Rio are Miku Tashiro (63kg), Haruka Tachimoto (70kg) and Mami Umeki (78kg). In a repeat of last year’s world championship bout Shohei Ono defeated Riki Nakaya in the 73kg division and was subsequently selected for the Olympic team. He will be joined in Rio by Naotoshi Takato (60kg), Masashi Ebinuma (66kg), Takanori Nagase (81kg), Mashu Baker (90kg), Ryunosuke Haga (100kg), and Hisayoshi Hirasawa (over 100kg).

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