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From Rio to Tokyo: Japanese Olympic athletes share their thoughts (Part 1)

From left, Kenzo Shirai (gymnastics), Mima Ito (table tennis), Daichi Suzuki (Japan Sports Agency Commissioner), Saki Takakuwa (Paralympic sprinter), and Kenta Chida (fencing). (Mainichi)

The year 2016 has just begun, but the Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro will soon be upon us.

    Athletes from Japan, which is to host the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2020, will not only be tested for their own athletic abilities in Rio de Janeiro, but also be required to demonstrate the strength and value of sports afresh ahead of the Tokyo Games.

    Attention is focused on what athletes are thinking ahead of the Olympic Games, and what they are trying to achieve in their events. Daichi Suzuki, the head of the Japan Sports Agency -- established in October 2015 -- asked four athletes of various ages and in various sports -- Kenzo Shirai (gymnastics), Saki Takakuwa (Paralympic sprinter), Kenta Chida (fencing) and Mima Ito (table tennis) -- about what they think about the Games and what they want to achieve in them.

    * * * * *

    Daichi Suzuki: I would like to hear from each of you regarding your thoughts about the Rio Olympics, as well as your own individual sports competitions. Is there anyone who is anxious to comment first?

    Kenta Chida: Well then, how about starting from the eldest among us?

    Kenta Chida (Mainichi)

    I won a silver medal in the team foil event at the last Summer Olympic Games in London. This time, I'm aiming for gold. Athletes all around the world are improving, however, which means it's going to be challenging for me to secure an Olympic berth.

    Saki Takakuwa: I was lucky enough to be able to compete in the London Paralympics, and at that time, I just happened to be at the top of my game. This time, since I've had four years to prepare, I definitely want to perform even better than I did in London.

    DS: The London Paralympics were really exciting!

    ST: Yes, they were amazing. People showed up just to watch the Paralympics. In my experience until that point, we'd always competed in huge stadiums that were not even half full, or where spectators had been brought in specifically for the competition. The London event, however, was put together really well all the way around. It really showed that the Paralympics is a competition that deserves to exist in its own right.

    Mima Ito: It has already been decided that I'll be going to the Rio Olympics (as a member of the women's team), although the official confirmation won't come until May. My goal was to go to Rio in preparation to win the gold in the Tokyo 2020 Games -- but I'm not going to be complacent. I'm aiming for a silver medal at the very least, and I actually hope to get the gold.

    DS: You seem like you've come a long way since your world tour victory two years ago.

    MI: Yes, I think I've changed somewhat since then. I depended a lot on my mother while I was in elementary school, but since entering junior high school, I've been able to think more independently about strategy.

    DS: I can't believe you were in elementary school until just recently! (Laughter all around)

    Kenzo Shirai: My first time representing Japan was in 2013. I have competed in the world championships three times, but I'd never once made it to the Olympics. I think that experiencing the games in Rio will enable me to understand what the Olympics are all about, which will help me in the lead up to Tokyo 2020.

    Japan won the world championships last year, but it's extremely difficult to secure one of the five individual spots to represent Japan in the Olympics. My initial goal is to compete as a member of the Japanese team.

    DS: Japan is very high-ranking, isn't it? How about at the Olympics?

    KS: At the Beijing and London Olympics, the Japanese team took the silver medal. For me, therefore, the image of the Olympics is one of deep frustration. Now, I'm trying to paint an image in my head of me being on the Olympics team -- and this time getting the gold.

    DS: Imagery is really important, isn't it? Could you all tell me next about what you love about your sport?

    KC: The allure of fencing is in the tactical maneuvering. Competitors make full use of their unique characteristics. Those with a long reach are already thrusting their foil and making their escape even before their opponent has engaged, and they are capable of attacking from afar. Smaller fencers, meanwhile, move nimbly to catch their opponent off guard.

    Personally, I'm in the latter category. My strength is in counterattacks that require swift footwork.

    ST: Track and field involves using nothing other than your body to master the basic human actions of running, jumping and throwing. In Paralympic track and field, however, apparatuses are used as well -- in my own case, a prosthetic leg.

    When I was a first-year junior high school student, my leg was amputated because of an illness. I went from having trouble walking to participating in track and field -- something that has been made possible for disabled individuals thanks to ingenious inventions and considerations that have been introduced. My hope is that more people will come to enjoy Paralympic track and field as a new genre.

    DS: Do the apparatuses result in a change of performance?

    ST: Not much. Certain global standards exist at the level of Paralympic finals, and the top athletes tend to favor certain types of devices. Otherwise, it comes down to technique -- how they use their devices.

    MI: The exciting part about table tennis is the speed of the rally -- it's been likened to playing chess while running. We have to have a strategy in mind before a competition even begins, and keep re-strategizing throughout a match. Sometimes I'll get a headache after it's all over.

    DS: You've made it into the Guinness World Records for your rallying speed, haven't you?

    MI: Yes, I have. I made a total of 180 counter hits in one minute. I've also been named the youngest winner in both the singles and doubles competition categories. At the time of the doubles match, I was 13.

    DS: Amazing. I've heard you were able to return your mother's serve when you were two years old!

    MI: Yes, I started playing when I was almost three. I said that I wanted to play, and we went out to buy a racket that same day.

    KS: Gymnastics essentially is a battle with oneself. Everything is completely scripted -- to the point that members of the media have a copy of the routine even before a competition starts. Still, everyone has their own unique strategies, such as devising a routine wherein it is difficult to lose points, or performing aggressively, or incorporating complex moves that earn higher scores.

    Also, not everyone is performing in the same events at the same time, so some athletes have their strongest routines toward the beginning of the competition, and others near the end. And since there are six total competition events, one never really knows what's going to happen.

    (This is Part 1 of a three-part series)

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