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Japan's relay swimmers pass on freestyle legacy with Rio bronze

From left, Japan's Takeshi Matsuda, Yuki Kobori, Naito Ehara, and Kosuke Hagino, show off their bronze medals after placing third in the men's 4x200-meter freestyle relay final at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 10, 2016. (Mainichi Photo/Naotsune Umemura)

RIO DE JANEIRO -- At the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games, Japan's swimmers in the men's 4x200 meter freestyle relay won a bronze medal. This legacy has now breathed life into a sport that was once the nation's specialty, as Japan on Aug. 9 claimed its first Olympic medal in the event in 52 years.

The team's oldest swimmer, 32-year-old Takeshi Matsuda, expressed hope for the future after Japan's accomplishment.

"With this medal, I hope that young athletes will make Japan's freestyle swimming even stronger," he said.

Before World War II, Japan excelled at men's freestyle swimming. It won gold medals in the men's 4x200 relay at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles and the 1936 Games in Berlin. Japan was not invited to the London Olympics in 1948 after its defeat in the war, but it is a well-known story that at that time, Japanese swimmer Hironoshin Furuhashi, who was nicknamed the "Flying Fish of Fujiyama," swam the 1,500-meter freestyle in a faster time than the Olympic champion.

At the 1964 Games, however, many Japanese swimmers were beaten, with Japan's only swimming medal coming in the men's 4x200 meter relay.

Analysis of the defeat led Japan to conclude that it was necessary to get Japanese children into the water at a young age, and privately operated swimming schools started cropping up across Japan. The nation's swimming population grew in leaps and bounds, and training by age category commenced. However, the country's revival in Olympic medals started with the breaststroke and backstroke, in which it could overcome the physical handicap of competing with European and American swimmers through technique.

Gaining confidence that they could compete with the rest of the world, Japanese swimmers started putting more effort into freestyle, and on Aug. 9, those competing for Japan in the freestyle relay finally managed to crown the country with a bronze medal.

Now as Japan prepares to host the 2020 Olympic Games, Japanese swimmers have left another legacy that will encourage the country to aim for medals that shine even brighter. (By Tatsuya Haga, Mainichi Shimbun)

From left to right, Takeshi Matsuda, Kosuke Hagino, Yuki Kobori and Naito Ehara celebrate after they won the bronze medal in the men's 4x200-meter freestyle relay at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, on Aug. 9, 2016. (Mainichi Photo/Masahiro Ogawa)

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