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Rifle shooting athletes set sights on Olympic medals with high-altitude cardio training

In this July 31, 1992 file photo, Ryohei Koba competes in the men's rifle shooting event at the Barcelona Summer Olympic Games, taking Japan's first and only medal in the sport, a bronze. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Athletes that have to worry about the expected oppressive heat of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics are not limited to those held outdoors, with shooters also facing surprisingly tough conditions.

Most think of the sport of shooting as a competition requiring concentration for a short period of time, but the "50-meter rifle 3 positions" event, dubbed the "rifle marathon," can exceed three hours including intervals in the men's division. The start time will be set at 8:30 a.m. at the earliest, meaning athletes will have to maintain a high level of concentration for a long period of time in the sweltering heat.

Different from the road-running marathon, the shooting "marathon" is partially held indoors. That is to say, the platform from which the athletes shoot has a roof, but the space between the shooter and the target 50 meters away is completely outdoors. With the reflection of the sun bouncing back up from the ground and the heat, athletes are drenched in sweat. It's said that after completing the 120-shot event, athletes walk away 2 kilograms lighter.

In other shooting events, such as those using pistols, whose barrels are shorter, athletes can wear light clothing such as T-shirts, but those taking part in the rifle three positions must wear a thick jacket weighing 2.4 kilograms. The thickness and stiffness of the jacket is regulated, making countermeasures against the heat difficult.

That is where staff involved in Japanese shooting came up with the idea to have athletes participate in body conditioning that would help them beat the heat. The aim of the training is to improve heart and lung capacity such that there would be no disturbance in the breathing of shooters even in the intense heat of the competition.

"If an athlete's breathing becomes uneven, then it leads to the barrel of the rifle also shaking," explained National Rifle Association of Japan coach Tsunehiko Tamura. When trying to shoot directly through the center of the 15.44 centimeter target 50 meters away, being off by even a few millimeters when aiming the rifle could spell disaster for a competitor. In the three position event, 40 shots each are taken from kneeling, prone lying chest-down on the ground and from standing positions, and having a good rhythm when shooting in each stance is required.

As part of strength training toward the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the Japan rifle association has introduced training at high altitudes, and has held regular training camps for Japan's national team since last spring in the Zao highlands in Yamagata Prefecture, located roughly 1,000 meters above sea level. The athletes run in the morning and engage in body core training in the afternoon, for three hours each. While there is little impression that a great amount of muscle strength is used in the sport, both the athletes and their aim have become steadier.

The effects of the high-altitude training do not end with just countering the heat, but have also led to improvements in basic skills needed for competition, and coach Tamura testified, "For many athletes, their stance has gotten steadier." Just this year alone, the female shooting athletes broke Japanese records four times.

Meanwhile, the association is also moving forward with development of new underclothing worn under the thick and heavy rifle jackets. When sweat soaks the underwear inside the jacket, it sticks to the skin, and causes friction when the athlete takes position to fire, which can botch their game.

Up until now, athletes had depended on functional year-round underclothing made abroad, but now the association's goal is to create underclothing that will be comfortable even when it absorbs sweat to match Japan's unique high-temperature, high-humidity conditions.

The only Olympic medal to be taken by Japan in a rifle shooting event was a bronze medal won by Ryohei Koba during the 1992 Barcelona Games. Now, Japan is once again taking aim for the Tokyo 2020 podium in two years' time.

(Japanese original by Akira Matsumoto, Sports News Department)

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