With the Winter Olympics due to start in South Korea this Friday, Weekender decided to take a look at some of the leading Japanese athletes whom we expect to challenge for medals.
Japan failed to win a speed skating medal in Sochi, but hopes are high this time around. Nao Kodaira, appearing in her third Olympics, is probably the country’s best individual gold medal hope. The 31-year-old has vowed to take home the top prize in honor of her friend and former teammate Miyako Sumiyoshi, who passed away at her home in January. Kodaira’s been the dominant force in both the 500 and 1,000 meters over the past 12 months and recently broke the world record in the latter. She will be coming up against home favorite and two-time Olympic champion Lee Sang-hwa in the 500, while America’s Heather Bergsma is highly fancied to run her close in the 1,000-meter race.
After missing out on the Sochi Games, Miho Takagi is determined to make up for lost time. The experienced skater, who will be competing individually in three races, has been in particularly good form in the 1,500 meters. Her best chance of a gold, however, may come in the team pursuit alongside sister Nana Takagi, Ayako Kikuchi, and Ayano Sato. The females set a world record in November last year, then smashed it again twice the following month. The Netherlands is expected to be the biggest threat. In the men’s 500-meter race veteran Joji Kato will be looking to improve on his fifth-place finish in Russia. The former world champion won a bronze at the Vancouver Games in 2010.
Defending champion Yuzuru Hanyu is aiming to become the first male skater to claim back-to-back Olympic titles since Dick Button back in 1952. Despite being widely regarded as the greatest ever, the two-time world champion isn’t the dead-cert for gold he once seemed. An ankle injury during practice at the NHK Trophy in November derailed his preparations and he hasn’t competed since. Hanyu only started practicing again on ice in mid-January and will make his competitive comeback in Pyeongchang. The hope among Japanese fans is that he will have fully recovered, though doubts over his fitness remain.
Leading contenders to take his crown include America’s Stephen Chen, Javier Fernandez from Spain and fellow countryman Shoma Uno, who has stepped out of Hanyu’s shadow with some fine performances of late. The 19-year-old was the first skater to land a successful quadruple flip in an international competition. He won a silver medal at the 2017 World Championships and finished second behind China’s Jin Boyang at the recent Four Continents Championships. Keiji Tanaka, Japan’s other male representative at the Olympics, finished fourth. At the same event, Kaori Sakamoto captured the women’s gold, with Satoko Miyahara finishing third. Both ladies are in with a chance of a podium finish in South Korea. Japan is also expected to challenge for a medal in the team event; however, Hanyu won’t be taking part.
Four years ago, Sara Takanashi was the red-hot favorite to take gold in the ski jumping competition after winning 10 out of 13 World Cups leading up to the Games in Sochi. Just 17 at the time, the 4″11″ star wilted under the pressure, finishing outside the medals. Expectations will be lower in Pyeongchang. The 21-year-old is on a poor run of form having failed to win a single World Cup this season. Her last victory came in February 2017 when she captured her 53rd World title, equaling Austrian Gregor Schlierenzauer’s all-time record total. Compatriot Yuki Ito, who finished runner-up to Takanashi in the 2016/17 season, is another medal contender, though Norway’s Maren Lundby has been the standout jumper in recent weeks.
By the time Takanashi and Ito were born, Noriaki Kasai had already competed in two Olympic Games. The man known simply as “The Legend” made his Olympic bow in Albertville 26 years ago and went on to win his first medal in the large hill team event at the following Games in Lillehammer. Four years ago, he became the oldest ever Olympic medalist, claiming a silver in the large hill individual and a bronze in the team competition. Pyeongchang will be a record eighth Olympics for the man who has songs written about him by a Finnish garage punk band and a Polish rapper. Other Japanese ski jumpers to look out for in Korea are siblings Junshiro and Ryoyu Kobayashi in the normal hill jump. They will also be competing alongside Kasai, Daiki Ito and Taku Takeuchi in the large hill team event.
Long seen as the heir to Shaun White’s halfpipe throne, Ayumu Hirano is aiming to better the silver he won as a 15-year-old in Sochi. The teen sensation is in fine form, having produced a sublime 99-point run on the final day of the 2018 X Games in Colorado to take the home superpipe title. In Pyeongchang he will have to overcome defending Olympic champion Iouri Podladtchikov, world champion Scotty James and the legendary White, who scored a perfect 100 at a recent World Cup event in America. 16-year-old Yuto Totsuka, who finished third in the same competition, has enjoyed a fine debut season and might be a good outside bet for a medal. The same could be said for fellow countrymen Raibu Katayama and 2014 Olympic bronze-medalist Taku Hiraoka. 15-year-old Hiroaki Kunitake is another name to look out for in the slopestyle and big air events.
Two of Japan’s leading female contenders are Miyabi Onitsuka and Reira Iwabuchi, who will be competing against each other in both the slopestyle and big air competitions. Onitsuka is a former world champion in slopestyle, while 16-year-old Iwabuchi recently took home the silver in big air at the X Games. The ladies to beat in South Korea may well be the two who stood beside her on the podium in Colorado: gold medalist Anna Gasser from Austria and third-placed Jamie Anderson from America. Other Japanese female snowboarders to keep an eye on include Sena Tomita and Haruna Matsumoto in the halfpipe competition as well as silver medalist from Sochi, Tomoka Takeuchi, who will be appearing in her fifth consecutive Olympics in the women’s parallel giant slalom.
In Sierra Nevada last March Ikuma Horishima became the first person to win both a moguls and dual moguls gold at the Freestyle World Championships. The Gifu-born skier, who was also the youngest ever winner of the two events, turned 20 in December and is now seen as a genuine medal prospect in Pyeongchang. The man to beat in South Korea is likely to be Mikael Kingsbury, whom Horishima knocked out at the quarter-final stage at the World’s. The Canadian has dominated the sport since the retirement of compatriot Alexandre Bilodeau and had won 13 World Cups in a row, before recently being beaten by Horishima.
Japan’s only other gold medal at the Freestyle Ski and Snowboarding World Championships in Spain was Ayana Onozuka in the freestyle skiing halfpipe event. In Pyeongchang the 29-year-old will be looking to better the bronze she won in Sochi. Back then, she was defeated by America’s Maddie Bowman and Marie Martinod from France. Both ladies should once again prove tough to beat. Other leading contenders include Canada’s Cassie Sharpe and Brita Sigourney from the United States. Yurie Watabe will also be representing Japan in the halfpipe event, though far more focus will be on her husband Akito in the Nordic combined.
Best of the Rest
Winning four out of the last five World Cup events in the Nordic combined, Akito Watabe is hitting form at the right time. His most recent triumph, which came in Japan, put the silver medalist from Sochi on top of the leader board for the season. In the last race he lost out to closest rival Jan Schmid from Norway, who sits 20 points behind him in the table. The 29-year-old Japanese skier, who will be appearing in his fourth straight Olympics, is hoping Zen meditation can help him achieve the right balance required to take home the gold in South Korea. He will be competing against and with his brother Yoshito Watabe. The pair will be joined by Hideaki Nagai, Takehiro Watanabe and Go Yamamoto in the large hill team event.
For the first time since the Nagano Games back in 1998, Japan will be represented at the Olympics by both a male and female curling team. While the ladies have proved consistently strong in qualification, their male counterparts have struggled down the years. Getting this far is seen as a massive step in the right direction. A top three finish is not beyond either team, though in both cases it would come as something of a surprise – as would a medal for Sakura Japan in women’s ice hockey. Currently ranked number nine in the world, they are in a group with Sweden, Switzerland and the controversial unified Korean side. Advancing to the quarter-finals and then beyond is not going to be easy, but they are capable of it, especially if they can reproduce the kind of performances they’ve been showing of late.
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