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Host town program gives residents, athletes chance for exchanges ahead of 2020 games

Bulgarian rhythmic gymnasts take a selfie with a participant during a send-off party organized by their fan club in Murayama, Yamanashi Prefecture, on June 27, 2018. (Mainichi)

MURAYAMA, Yamagata -- Host town program activities between athletes and local residents targeting the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics are gaining momentum, with one of the most successful cases being the city of Murayama in the northern Japan prefecture of Yamagata hosting Bulgarian athletes.

The small city with a population of some 24,000 residents has managed to establish rapport with the Bulgarian youths through fan club activities and volunteer programs supporting their training. Their success story has attracted national attention with inquiries pouring in from around the country.

In late June, the Murayama fan club organized a party to send off Bulgarian rhythmic gymnasts who completed a training trip in the city. If the athletes gain at least third place in the September world championships, the Bulgarians will qualify for the Tokyo Games. The facility where the party was held was filled with fans calling out, "Davai, davai," meaning "go" in Bulgarian.

The ties between Murayama and Bulgaria are rooted in roses. The Yamagata prefecture city has one of the largest rose gardens in east Japan, while the East European country is a major producer of the flower.

In the first training stay by the Bulgarian national team in June last year, resident volunteers supported the athletes in practice sessions and during their daily lives. The fan club now has 275 members, who each pay 3,000 yen in annual membership fees and take part in exchange sessions with the East Europeans. Club leader Akemi Nitto, 62, says, "We want them to win a medal with our support."

The presence of the Bulgarian gymnasts apparently helped raise local interest in the sport. The municipal government intends to open a rhythmic gymnastics club for elementary school students and older people by inviting a former national team member from Bulgaria to visit. Local junior high schools have rhythmic gymnastics clubs but no opportunity to learn the sport exists here for younger children. Nanako Fujita, 6, a fan club member, says, "Watching the gymnasts practice made me want to do the sport myself."

The host town program benefits countries and regions participating in the Tokyo Games. Rhythmic gymnasts use apparatus such as clubs, which can be affected by humidity. Getting used to the climate of the host country, Japan, is considered important. Participating athletes in the program can join Japanese culture events such as flower arrangement sessions or tea ceremonies, and have fun mingling with local residents.

A total of 305 municipalities nationwide have registered as host towns since the central government started accepting applications in November of 2015. As it is a government-driven project, "a key to success is winning the involvement of local residents," says a government official. The fact that there are only limited cases where athletes are actually visiting host towns is also a hurdle to overcome in raising public awareness about the project.

In the case of Murayama, city officials and residents are working hand in hand to support the Bulgarians, and they plan to go see the 2020 Tokyo Games to cheer on their favorite gymnasts from the East European country.

The athletes sounded happy about the backing they were receiving from the residents. "We can only return the favor by winning a gold medal," said Neviana Vladinova, 24, who came 7th in the women's individual rhythmic gymnastics at the 2016 Rio Olympics. "We would like to continue our challenge so that we will be able to share our joy with the residents of Murayama."

(Japanese original by Tadashi Murakami, Sports News Department)

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