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Asian Games an Olympic tune-up for some top Japan athletes, others skip event

Japan's Natsumi Sakai checks pool conditions at the swimming venue for the 2018 Asian Games, in Jakarta, Indonesia. (Mainichi)

The 2018 Asian Games, which officially get underway in Jakarta and Palembang, Indonesia, on Aug. 18, are the final major combined athletic meet before the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. For some of Japan's premiere athletes, that makes the event a serious chance to prepare for 2020. Others, however, will be skipping the Asian Games altogether as they prepare for other competitions.

With no world championship competition this year in either athletics or swimming, Japan has fielded its top stars of track and pool. "If we can't get the better of Asia, there's no way we can take on the whole world," Japan Association of Athletics Federations Chairman Hiroshi Yokokawa said of the Asian Games' importance. Meanwhile, Japanese swimmers are treating the four days of the recent Pan Pacific Swimming Championships and the six days of races at the Asian Games -- adding up to the same number of days of competition in an Olympic tournament -- as a chance to build strength with Tokyo 2020 in mind.

It is a different story for Japan's judo and gymnastics teams. Both are expected to be podium-worthy at the coming Olympics, but with world championship tournaments coming in September and October, respectively, the teams sent only second-tier competitors to Indonesia. The decision was apparently made to prevent the country's best judoka and gymnasts from becoming too fatigued.

Meanwhile, though they have just finished battling at the world championships in Nanjing, which ended on Aug. 5, Japan's badminton players are present and accounted for at the Asian Games. Newly minted men's singles world champion Kento Momota injured an abdominal muscle in late July, but he will still play in Indonesia.

"The world's strongest badminton countries and regions are at the Asian Games, so the tournament is very valuable. It's the kind of tournament we should be at regardless of whether it affects the world rankings, which impact the Olympics," commented Nippon Badminton Association Managing Director Kinji Zeniya.

Japan's men's and women's volleyball teams are taking different tacks when it comes to the Asian Games. Both will head to world championship tourneys in September, but the men's event will start on the 9th, while the women's will begin on the 29th. That 20-day difference means the women's team in Indonesia is made up of Japan's top players. The team also judged that, though coordinating for the world championship will be made more difficult, it would gain valuable experience competing in the combined athletic meet that is the Asian Games.

The players will have to get back and forth to the volleyball venue by shuttle bus, and only a limited number of the team's staff can fit in the athletes' village. But they "want to shoot for good results in these constrained circumstances, and link that to the Tokyo Olympics," said head coach Kumi Nakada.

Japan has placed third after China and South Korea in the gold medal rankings in each of the five Asian Games since Bangkok 1998. The Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC) has declared that Japan will win the third most golds at Tokyo 2020. With that in mind, the JOC is looking for Japan to take the second most golds in Indonesia. However, a more achievable goal would be for Japan to limit the gap with South Korea to about the same as it had over the past two Asian Games. However, if the gold medal gap widens in South Korea's favor, it could put a dent in Japan's hopes.

Softball player Yukiko Ueno is set to be Japan's flagbearer in the Asian Games opening ceremony. Until Aug. 12, she was in Chiba near Tokyo, playing in the Women's Softball World Championship.

"I'm tired, but consecutive games are an unavoidable part of the game," said the ace pitcher. "We will play our games in a way that will have people thinking that Japan is a strong team," she added.

(Mainichi)

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