Global pandemics, border closures, postponements, ticketing issues and runaway Ugandan weightlifters… it’s fair to say that the lead up to Tokyo 2020 has been more than a just a little unpredictable!
But, the time has finally arrived for the Games of the XXXII Olympiad to begin right here in Japan. While it won’t be quite the Games we were all so looking forward to due to the COVID restrictions in place, it’s time to put the negativity behind us, to get excited and to embrace the Olympic spirit, with the opening ceremony taking place tomorrow night (Friday July 23rd) and the Games running through to August 8th.
In this article, we preview those sports in which Japan stands the best chance of capturing Olympic glory!
Before the pandemic, the Japan Olympic Committee (JOC) boldly claimed to be aiming for 30 gold medals. A claim they’ve since backed down from, quite rightly in the minds of most, given they won only 12 in Rio and have never won more than 16 (in Athens ’04 and Tokyo ’64).
The renewed focus? “For each athlete to do their best and do their utmost”, says the JOC President. That sounds much more achievable!
Katsuhiro Matsumoto carries the nation’s hopes in the pool, one of only 5 men to swim the 200m freestyle in less than 1minute 45 seconds this year. His biggest competition comes from Team GB’s Duncan Scott and Tom Dean, who are currently ranked 1 and 2 in the world. Japan’s Daiya Seto (men’s 200m and 400m IM), Shoma Sato (men’s 200m breaststroke) and Yui Ohashi (women’s 400m IM) are also among the main contenders in their events.
Results (27/7) - Yui Ohashi took the gold in the women's 400m IM! Sadly Matsumoto, Seto and Sato failed to make the finals in their events but still have some others coming up this week.
Japan has dominated women’s wrestling in the past few Games’ winning 11 of the possible 18 gold medals since 2008. Risako Kawai is the defending gold medallist in the women’s 63kg wrestling category having blitzed the field in Rio in 2016. In one of this year’s more heartwarming pre-Games stories, she has come down a weight class and will compete at 58kg, taking on the challenge of becoming a gold-medallist across two weight classes but, more importantly, creating a space for her sister Yukako Kawai to make the Olympic team at 63kg. How cool is that!?
Track and Field
Japan should be competitive across most of the track disciplines but it is the race walking where the host nation is most likely to dominate. Three Japanese athletes, Toshikazu Yamanishi, Koki Ikeda and Eiki Takahashi are the standouts in the men’s 20km race walk and an all-Japan podium is absolutely on the cards. Sadly, Japan’s 50km walking champion, Yusuke Suzuki has recently withdrawn from the event. Japan also have strong recent form in the men’s 100m relay and will be looking to go one better than their silver in Rio, though they come up against a very fast US team.
Japan has a strong Judo team, as you’d expect given the native origins of the sport. 2018 world champion Hamada Shori will compete for gold in the women’s <78kg judo with her main rivals being Germany’s Anna Maria Wagner and Madeleine Malonga of France. Naohisa Takato, who described his bronze medal in Rio as ‘humiliating’ will be out to make amends in the men’s 60kg category and Hisayoshi Harasawa will be taking on the mighty challenge of dethroning 6’ 10”, 140kg Frenchman Teddy Riner for gold in the men’s open weight class.
Results (27/7) - Takato took out gold in the men's 60kg!
Another sport where Japan has a legacy of success, the nation enters this year’s gymnastics competition with high hopes. The men’s team event will likely be battled out by Japan, Russia and China, with these three nations significantly stronger than the rest of the field. The main query over the Japanese team is experience, with the entire squad competing at the Olympics for the first time. On the women’s side, Japan’s Mai Murakami stands a strong chance for a podium finish in the Women’s Floor, an event which will most likely be won by US phenom Simone Biles.
Results (27/7) - The Japanese men took silver in the team event, losing out to ROC (Russian Olympic Committee). China took bronze.
Japan’s Harimoto Tomokazu is an 18-year-old up-and-coming star, currently the 5th ranked men’s table tennis player in the world. In 2017, at the age of 14, he became the youngest man to ever win an event on the International Table Tennis Federation circuit. He will certainly be aiming for a podium finish this year. In the women’s event, Japan has two good chances in world number three Ito Mima and world number nine Ishikawa Kazumi. Asian countries are predicted to dominate here, with Chinese athletes favoured in both men’s and women’s table tennis.
Results (27/7) - Tomokazu is through to the round of 16, competing tonight to progress. Ito Mima took gold in the doubles and continues her singles run tonight in the round of 16.
A sport which Japan is wildly passionate about but until recently, not particularly successful in on the world-stage, the nation enters this year’s competition with genuine contenders in both the men’s and women’s golf events. Hideki Matsuyama is a household name here in Japan having recently won The Masters, arguably golf’s greatest achievement. He’ll take on a star-studded field at Kasumigaseki Country Club between July 29 and August 1. Nasa Hataoka finished runner-up in the Women’s US Open just last month and will be Japan’s leading chance in the women’s event.
As host nation, Japan have nominated 5 sports to be included in this years’ Games, either for the first time, or returning to the schedule after some years off. Naturally, the nation holds high hopes in the following hand-picked events.
22-year-old star Yuto Horigone has a 2019 X Games gold medal to his name as well as four golds in the World Skate Street League. He has amassed a huge following on social media thanks to his incredible street skate tricks and if those are anything to go by, he stands a strong chance to win the men's 'street' event against the favoured American skater Nyjah Huston.
Results (27/7) - Japan dominated the street skateboarding, picking up men's (Yuto Horigone) and women's (Momiji Ishiya) gold.
The Japan softball team began their campaign on Wednesday, and led by veteran pitcher Yukiko Ueno got off to a flying start with a comprehensive 8-1 victory against the Australians. They then followed this up with a 3-2 win over highly rated Mexico so the (soft) ball is rolling in the right direction. In a tournament containing only 6 teams, a medal for Japan is now looking very likely.
Results (28/7) - The Japan softball team took out the gold! They beat the US 2-0 in the final.
Kanoa Igarashi was bred to surf! In fact, his Japanese parents moved to California when his mother fell pregnant, with an eye toward giving their youngster the best chance of one day becoming a pro. So will the circle become complete for him in this year’s Games, the first time ever that surfing has featured as an Olympic sport? Form suggests he has a strong chance, with a 2019 win on the Bali leg of the World Surf League the highlight of his career thus far.
Results (27/7) - so close but so far for Igarashi, falling short of his Olympic gold medal dream, losing the men's final to Brazilian Italo Ferreira. But silver for Japan in surfing is still great news!
Cast aside sumo wrestling, and karate is THE most Japanese of all martial arts. So it stands to reason that Japan has a number of the world’s best karateka (karate athletes). Ryutaro Araga is among the favourites in the men’s +75kg division and women Miho Miyahara and Ayumi Uekusa have both held world titles in their respective weight classes. Missing a medal here would be a disappointment for Japan.
Japan’s Shohei Ohtani has taken Major League Baseball by storm recently, breaking records for the LA Angels with both his pitching and hitting. Sadly as a full time pro in the US, he’s unavailable for the Games, but Japan will still be turning out a strong baseball team as the sport returns to the Olympics for the first time since 2008. In fact, Japan go in as favourites, even more highly fancied than the USA team who are restricted to using only players not signed to a ‘40-man roster’ of a Major League team.
If you’re in Japan, you can catch most of the Olympic action live on NHK or at https://www.gorin.jp/
For schedules and results, head to www.olympics.com/tokyo-2020