Japan’s Gold Medal Hopefuls at Sochi


The opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics is set to be held on February 7 in the Russian city of Sochi, on the Black Sea coast.

It is the first Olympic Games to be held since the announcement was made in 2013 that Tokyo will be hosting the 2020 summer games. Hashimoto Seiko, the head of Japan’s Olympic delegation, pledged that the Japanese athletes would aim to top Japan’s record medal tally at the 1998 Winter Olympics held in Nagano, when the nation earned a total of five gold, one silver, and four bronze medals. Hashimoto said that the goal this time around would be to earn a total of at least 10 medals, including five or more gold medals.

Can Asada Mao Bring Home the Gold?

Japan’s medal hopes are focused on its figure skaters, particularly its female skaters competing in the individual competition. Four years ago, at the Vancouver Winter Games, the Japanese female figure skater Asada Mao won a silver medal—coming up short to her South Korean rival Kim Yuna in a much heralded contest.

Asada and Kim differ in age by just 20 days—both were born in September 1990—and have been rivals since their days as junior skaters.

The best weapon in Asada’s arsenal is the triple axel, the most challenging of the six types of figure skating jumps. Whereas the other jumps take off from a backward entrance, the axel is a jump launched on the forward outside edge. This makes the axel a more nerve-racking jump to perform. Asada is the only female skater in the world today to incorporate this jump into her program.

At the Vancouver Games, Asada successfully performed a triple axel in her short program and two more in her free program, but she ended up finishing behind Kim because of mistakes on other jumps. As for the upcoming Sochi Games, Asada says that her goal is to “accomplish a perfect performance of an optimal short and free program.”

Asada enjoys a high level of popularity in Russia, having once trained with the Russian coach Tatiana Tarasova as her own instructor. If Asada manages to complete a challenging program that includes a triple axel, there is every reason to believe she can come out on top.

Kim was able to defeat Asada in the past on the basis of her combination jumps, beautiful skating, and expressive ability. Her appearance in competitions since the Vancouver Games has been limited, but each time she appears she has earned praise for her nearly perfect performances.

But Kim made a late start in the season leading up to the Sochi Winter Olympics due to a leg injury. Although she did come close to scoring a new world record at the South Korean Figure Skating Championships in January 2014, she missed a jump and did not seem quite as quick on the ice as usual. She will need to take her skating up a notch in order to win the gold.

Russia’s New Star

There is a newcomer among female figure skaters who is also causing a stir—the 15-year-old Russian Julia Lipnitskaia. In mid-January she became the youngest skater to ever win the European figure skating championship, held in Budapest, marking the highest score among skaters this season.

The result made a huge impact because it was the first time in 83 years for a skater to win the European championship in her first appearance; the last to do so was the Norwegian skater Sonja Henie, way back in 1931. Thanks to her incredibly limber “candle spin” (her twist on the “Biellmann spin”) and the enthusiastic backing of local fans, Lipnitskaia is sure to be a formidable rival for Asada.

Asada will also have competition from her fellow Japanese skaters, Suzuki Akiko and Murakami Kanako, who are both skating at a very high level. Suzuki, in particular, has been impressive, winning the Japan Figure Skating Championships for the first time in December 2013. If she can turn in the same sort of perfect performance in Sochi, she will certainly be a medal contender—and might even come away with the gold. At 28, she has the expressive power of an adult.

The 19-year-old Murakami trained as a girl at the same Ōsu Skating Rink in the Nagoya Sports Center where Asada honed her skills, and then went on to attend the same high school and university. And she has been trained by the same coach who helped Itō Midori earn a bronze medal at the 1992 Albertville Games, Yamada Machiko. Hopes are high that Murakami will continue to advance as a skater.

Sendai Skater Seeks Gold

Japanese medal hopes are not limited to female figure skaters, either; a lot of hopes are also pinned on the 19-year-old male figure skater Hanyū Yuzuru, a brilliant newcomer who is aiming for the gold.

Hanyū hails from Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture—one of the areas hard-hit by the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami. The day the quake struck, he was practicing as usual at a skate rink in Sendai and had to scramble for safety outside the building.

His free program at Sochi will feature the melody of “Romeo and Juliet” composed by Nino Rota. (He used a version by a different composer for the season following the 2011 disaster.) This heartfelt program will include the challenging feat of two different types of quadruple jumps.

As a boy, Hanyū looked up to the Russian skater Evgeni Plushenko, who will be making his fourth Olympic appearance at the Sochi Games. In pursuit of the gold, Hanyū hopes to not only outperform his idol but also top the Canadian star Patrick Chan, who has won three straight world championships.

Other skaters in the medal hunt are Takahashi Daisuke, who became the first Japanese male skater to win an Olympic medal by earning the bronze in Vancouver, and Machida Tatsuki, a skater whose unique sense of expression has charmed spectators.

Japan’s Ski-jumping Star

One of Japan’s brightest hopes for winning the gold is Takanashi Sara, who will make her Olympic debut in the female ski-jumping event, which has been included in the Winter Olympics for the first time.

The 17-year-old, who is still a student at an international school in Asahikawa, Hokkaidō, has had a breathtaking ski-jumping season, despite often facing difficult weather conditions. Her 17 world cup championships (as of the end of January 2014) are the most attained by either a female or male ski-jumper.

Takanashi’s main rival is Sarah Hendrickson, the American ski-jumper who won the world championships in 2012. Hendrickson injured a ligament in her right knee last August, and at one point she risked missing the Sochi Games, but after intensive rehabilitation she is back on the roster of the US team. Her participation in this year’s Winter Olympics will heat up the competition in the ski-jumping event.

For men’s speed-skating, Japan has two aces up its sleeve: Nagashima Keiichirō and Katō Jōji. At Vancouver, Nagashima brought home the silver, while Katō won a bronze medal. This time the two skaters both have their sights set squarely on the gold.

Other athletes with medal hopes include Kasai Noriaki, a 41-year-old ski-jumping veteran; the female mogul skier and five-time Olympic participant Uemura Aiko; and the snowboarding phenom in the halfpipe event, 15-year-old Hirano Ayumu.

(Originally written in Japanese on January, 28, 2014; banner photograph courtesy of Nikkan Sports/Aflo.)

Olympics Sochi Asada Mao Takanashi Sara