Olympics: Desperate Japanese look for joy in despair

TOKYO, Jan 26, 2010 (AFP) - Japan, once Asia's supreme winter sports power, are hoping that the national embarrassment caused by their meagre, one-medal showing in 2006 will spark a gold rush at next month's Vancouver Olympics.

"We ended up with just one gold medal at the last Turin Olympics, which officials and athletes still greatly regret," admitted Seiko Hashimoto, chief of the Japanese delegation to Vancouver.

But the disappointment has now turned into "tremendous power".

She added: "I want us to give full play to that power."

In Turin, Japan's only medal was the gold captured by Shizuka Arakawa who became Asia's first Olympic champion in figure skating.

But for a country which had targeted at least five medals, Turin proved a city of slim pickings.

Japan's hurt was made more acute by the performances of their great Asian rivals as South Korea grabbed 11 medals, including six golds, while China also won 11 medals, two of which were gold.

In Vancouver, Japan's medal hopes are once again pinned on figure skaters as two former world champions, Mao Asada (2008) and Miki Ando (2007) take on reigning title-holder Kim Yu-Na of South Korea in the women's event.

Japan lifted Asia's first Winter Olympic medal in 1956, when skiier Chiharu Igaya took the men's slalom silver, and remained the region's top dogs until South Korea and China got on the medal board in 1992.

Their medal haul peaked at 10, including five golds, at home in Nagano in 1998 but slipped to one silver and one bronze in 2002.

Hashimoto said her squad of about 90 athletes would try to emulate the success in Nagano.

"It may be difficult to get 10 medals under present circumstances but we want to set our target close to that figure," said Hashimoto, now a member of parliament and who grabbed 1,500-metre speed skating bronze in 1992.

The Japan Skating Federation said they are sending the "strongest figure skating squad.

"We want to win a number of medals, either men's or women's," said Hidehito Ito, the federation's figure skating director.

Japan have produced five women world champions in figure skating, developing a well-organised junior scouting system after Midori Ito took home the 1992 Olympic women's silver medal.

The men's figure skating team is led by 2007 world silver medallist Daisuke Takahashi, who is joined by Nobunari Oda, the runner-up to world champion Evan Lysacek of the United States at the Grand Prix Final.

In other sports, world women's freestyle mogul skiing champion Aiko Uemura is keen to make the podium for the first time in her four Olympic outings.

Japan are also looking forward to the Nordic combined event after winning the world team title last year for the first time in 14 years.

Keiichiro Nagashima hopes to lift Japan back from a speed skating medal drought in Turin.

He won a World Cup 500m race in Heerenveen and finished third overall behind South Korea's Lee Kyou-Hyuk and Lee Kang-Seok at the world sprint championships.

Source: AFP

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