Monday, December 04, 2006

The Land of the Rising Sun... thanks to

The Land of the Rising Sun
Japanese swimming captain Kosuke Kitajima  © Getty Images Hot favourite: Japanese swimming captain Kosuke Kitajima will defend breaststroke medals
For so long Japan sat pretty atop the medal table at each Asian Games, but having lost that honour to rivals China at the 1982 edition of the Games in New Delhi, they have since slipped to third behind Korea in all but the Hiroshima Games of 1994.

This means that the 628-strong Japanese delegation arrived in Doha for the 15th Asian Games on a mission to not only reclaim second spot, but to also haul themselves closer to China, who won 150 gold medals in Busan four years ago in comparison to their rivals' 44 - less than half the Korean tally of 96.

Japan though still lead the way in the number of Asian Games medals won overall with 2,188 in comparison to China's 1,799 and the 1,356 of Korea. While they have won more silver (746) and bronze (654) medals, however, it is China who have won more gold medals with 819 to Japan's 788.

The dominance of these three Asian superpowers is easy to see when you consider that the fourth most successful Asian Games nation is India with a total of 427 medals - which equates to only a fifth of the number won by Japan alone - and that divide will widen further in Doha.

In fact when you add all of the medals won by all the other countries and regions they add up to 3,721 – significantly less than the 5,343 of China, Japan and Korea put together.

The Japanese squad charged with reclaiming second spot in Asia - as they did at the Athens Olympic Games of 2004 - is made up of 352 male and 276 female athletes, some 30 fewer than the number who returned from Busan with 190 medals.

This slight reduction is, however, according to Japanese Olympic Committee vice president Tsutomu Hayashi, merely down to the focus on winning more gold medals in Doha.

"We have cut our size because our aim is to win medals," Mr Hayashi told AFP. "We want to put our gold medal target above 50. We want to overtake Korea and climb to second place."
In the deep end

We want to overtake Korea and climb to second place

Their best-ever Olympic performance was at the Olympics in Athens – when they won a record 37 medals, 16 of them gold – means Japan will arrive confident of overhauling Korea for the coveted second spot as they build towards the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

"We regard the Asian Games as an important step toward the Beijing Olympics. If we can't win in Asia, we cannot fight in Beijing," Hayashi added.

Japan's best hopes of medals are in the disciplines of swimming, women's wrestling, judo and athletics with team captain Kosuke Kitajima and flagbearer Saori Yoshida among the athletes expected to retain their Asian Games titles.

Kitajima is the biggest hope in the pool, the 24 year-old not only being the defending 100m and 200m breaststroke at the Asian Games, but also the reigning Olympic champion over the distances.

Voted the Athlete of the 2002 Asian Games after his victories – the 200m coming in a world record time – Kitajima is also entering the 50m breaststroke in Doha and will be hoping to bounce back after a year of illness and injury problems.

Some of Japan's leading swimmers are missing the event to focus on the World Championships in March, but hopes are high that Takashi Yamamoto can claim a third successive men's 100m butterfly crown in Doha.

Two other defending champions in the pool are Reiko Nakamura and Yuko Nakanishi in the women's 200m backstroke and 200m butterfly respectively. The pair also collected bronze medals in the Athens Olympics.

Athletics in the 14th Asian Games yielded only two gold medals for Japan, but only 200m sprinter Shingo Suetsugu will defend his title.
A female wrestler tries to get the upper hand over an opponent © Getty Images Superstar: Saori Yoshida in red is unbeaten in eight years of action
On track for success

Olympic champion and Japanese darling, Murofushi was seeking a third straight Asian Games title, an achievement which would have taken him one nearer to emulating the five hammer gold medals his father Shigenobu won between 1970 and 1986, but a pulled calf muscle has eliminated him from the competition, denying Japan an almost certain medal.

Meanwhile on the track Kayoko Kumiko will be hoping to go one better than the two silver medals she won in the women's 5000m and 10,000m four years ago behind Sun Yingjie of China.

Japan could also serve up a double in the inaugural Asian Games triathlons with Hirokatsu Tayama and Ai Ueda having won the men's and women's events at the Asian Championships in Jiayuguan, China in August.

On the volleyball court at Al-Rayyan Indoor Hall, Japan will hope to avenge their defeat by main Asian rivals China in the recent Women's World Championship fifth place playoff with MVP of that tournament Yoshie Takeshita leading the way.

The Japanese artistic gymnastics team will also have a point to prove in Doha after a disappointing World Championships in October. They will look to Hiroyuki Tomita to lead their challenge against a Chinese team who swept the board then.

While Japan will be underdogs in the gymnastics hall, it will be a major surprise if they do not dominate the women's wrestling events, given the number of defending Asian Games champions or Olympic medallists in their ranks.

The undoubted star in women's wrestling is Yoshida, who won the inaugural 55kg freestyle Asian Games title in 2002 and has gone on to become a four-time world champion and Olympic champion.
Sporting superstar

If we can't win in Asia, we cannot fight in Beijing

Yoshida has also not lost an international match at senior level in her career, a remarkable run which now stretches back eight years and encompasses more than 100 matches. She is, quite simply, a superstar of the sport. 

She is not Japan's only medal hope, however, as sisters Kaori and Chiharu Icho have impressive credentials, particularly the younger Kaori who since claiming 63kg silver in Busan, has won three world titles and the Olympic crown.

Chiharu meanwhile picked up the silver medal in the 48kg division in Athens. Another contender is defending Asian Games champion Kyoko Hamaguchi in the 72kg division, who also won the bronze medal in Athens.

The sport of judo originated in Japan and their judokas would naturally be expected to dominate, given the Olympic champions they have in their ranks, including women's +63kg and 70kg stars Ayumi Tanimoto and Masae Ueno.

However a disappointing showing at the World Team Championships back in September, when their men and women failed to reach the final, makes talk of winning all 16 gold medals seem a little ambitious to say the least.

Whether their judokas do return to winning form remains to be seen, but regardless of that the land of the rising sun will see many of its athletes mount the top step of the podium on numerous occasions in Doha.

Will they do so enough times to surpass Korea? Only time will tell.

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