Looking to eclipse their best effort of ten medals won at the Nagano Olympics in 1998, the Japanese team are heading to Sochi with high hopes. While their target may seem overly ambitious to some, they do have a number of top athletes capable of making a big impression in Russia. Here’s a look at some of the best.
By Matthew Hernon
Women’s ski jumping is finally set to make its Olympic debut this year with teenage sensation Sara Takanashi favorite for gold. The 4’11” star, who credits ballet lessons as the reason for her sense of balance, has been in imperious form this season. She has won 10 out of 13 events, giving her 19 world cup wins in total, equaling Kenji “the king of ski” Ogiwara’s record for the most World Cup victories by a Japanese competitor in any winter sport. It also puts her six ahead of Sarah Hendrickson, the previous record holder in women’s ski jumping. The American, who has recovered from a knee injury, is expected to be Takanashi’s closest competitor in Sochi.
Set for yet another epic showdown with long-time rival Kim Yuna, Mao Asada goes into the Sochi Games on the back of a great year in which she won three Grand Prix gold medals. During the last Olympics she became the first female figure skater in history to land three triple axel jumps in the same competition, but still finished behind Yuna. The Korean is still favored to retain her crown, but knows she will have to be at her very best to overcome not only Asada, but also 15-year-old Russian star Julia Lipnitskaia. Japan’s other figure skaters—Akiko Suzuki and Kanako Murakami—are also in with a shout of a medal.
While much of the press attention will focus on Mao Asada’s battle with Kim Yuna, the men’s figure skating competition promises to be just as exciting. In Daisuke Takahashi, Tatsuki Machida and Yuzuru Hanyu, Japan has three genuine medal contenders. The latter, in particular, goes into the Games with high hopes following an extremely impressive display in December’s Grand Prix Final in Fukuoka, where he defeated three-time world champion Patrick Chan of Canada. Training under renowned coach Brian Orser, who also coached Kim Yuna, Hanyu’s career has gone from strength to strength since moving to Toronto.
The heir apparent to Shaun White’s snowboarding crown? Ayumu Hirano may only be 15, but he is already getting more air than most riders and last year launched his small frame over 18 feet out of the pipe to earn a silver medal at the X Games in Aspen. Legendary figure White, who won the event, said of Hirano, “I think he’s got an amazing future ahead of him and I was proud to ride with him.” White is expected to continue his dominance in Sochi, but he will be wary of the threat that the young contender from Japan poses.
At the other end of the age spectrum, ski jumper Noriaki Kasai is set to appear in a record seventh Winter Olympics. Hirano, Takanashi and Hanyu weren’t even born when Kasai made his debut at the Albertville Games in 1992. The 41-year old has yet to claim an individual medal at the Olympics, but was part of the ski jumping team, along with Jinya Nishikata, Takanobu Okabe and Masahiko Harada, that won silver in 1994. His recent World Cup victory in Austria has given his fans hope that he can finish his career in style in Sochi.
Keiichiro Nagashima and Joji Kato
Silver and bronze medalists in the 500m speed skating race in Vancouver, Keiichiro Nagashima and Joji Kato will once again be looking for podium finishes in Sochi, with a gold medal for either not out of the question. Toshiaki Imamura, who coaches both men, is hoping they tie for first place. However, at a recent press conference Kato declared that he had “no intention of tying anyone for gold,” to which Nagashima replied “likewise.” 2010 winner Mo Tae-bum is the slight favorite for gold, although Dutch trio Ronald Mulder, Michel Mulder and Jan Smeekens are also expected to challenge. Nao Kodaira is Japan’s best hope in the women’s 500m speed skating race.