Tokyo: Japan hope the appliance of science can trigger an Asian Games gold rush but admit they will struggle to steal hosts South Korea’s thunder, insisting that building momentum for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is their top priority.
It would take an astonishing effort for the Japanese to finish above their fierce rivals in the medals table for the first time since staging Asia’s biggest sporting event 20 years ago in Hiroshima.
Japan’s delegation boss Tsuyoshi Aoki expects South Korea to come out guns blazing when the competition begins in the western port of Incheon on September 19, but said the quadrennial event offered the perfect opportunity for potential future Olympic medallists to shine.
“The Asian Games are the first step for Japan on the road to the Tokyo Olympics,” Aoki told AFP. “Winning medals is important of course but the key factor is the platform to produce stars for the future. It’s a stepping stone for them.
“Our coaching staff conduct hi-tech research on the condition of the athletes, closely analysing computer data to ensure optimal performance,” he added. “We hope to improve on the 48 gold medals we won four years ago but obviously we know South Korea will be very tough.”
China’s juggernaut has dominated the Asian Games since 1982 but the event has often served as a launching pad to world and Olympic success for Japanese athletes, as with swimmer Kosuke Kitajima and marathon runner Naoko Takahashi.
Japan expect to make a splash in the pool after winning seven gold medals at last month’s Pan Pacific championships in Australia, where Kosuke Hagino’s 200m individual medley victory over his hero Michael Phelps stole headlines.
Yasuhiro Koseki completed the 100-200m breaststroke double — as Kitajima famously did at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics — and will be favourite to repeat that at an Asian Games swimming competition also boasting China’s Olympic champion Sun Yang and South Korea star Park Tae-hwan.
“Koseki has got a big body and he will be among the medals,” said Kitajima, who broke his first world record at the 2002 Asian Games in Busan. “He pushes himself extremely hard in training which is where his power comes from. It’s a big year for him.”
Away from the Speedos and chlorine, Japan’s medal hopes extend across athletics, football, badminton and even women’s cricket, in addition to their bread-and-butter combat sports judo and wrestling, where the fearsome Saori Yoshida will strike terror into her opponents.
The 31-year-old has won the last three Olympic titles at 55 kilos and 12 straight world titles, and any result other than a fourth straight Asian Games crown would be a seismic shock.
On the athletics track, Japanese record-holder Chisato Fukushima puts her tag as Asia’s fastest woman on the line as she bids to retain the 100m and 200m titles she won in Guangzhou four years ago.
Japan’s female footballers, currently Asian Cup and World Cup holders, will be a force to be reckoned with, although both North and South Korea will be determined to put the brakes on the all-conquering “Nadeshiko”, named after a frilly pink carnation.
China’s badminton dominance faces a test from Indonesia, Malaysia and South Korea but Minatsu Mitani’s bronze at last month’s world championships in Copenhagen gives Japan hope of pinching a medal.
Japan won bronze in women’s cricket at the 2010 Guangzhou Games when it first became a medal sport, a little-known fact which sounds like a teaser from a trivia quiz.
“At first they got smashed all over the place,” the CEO of the Japan Cricket Association, Alex Miyaji, told AFP. “But they’ve come a long way and the aim is to improve on last time around.”