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Mainichi Shimbun preview of Japan's hopes at 2018 Winter Olympics

Japanese Olympic delegation officials take part in an entrance ceremony at the Pyeongchang Olympic Village, which Japanese athletes avoided in order to maintain their physical condition, in Gangneung, South Korea, on Feb. 7, 2018. (Mainichi)

With just one day left until the start of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics on Feb. 9, Mainichi Shimbun journalist Yoshihiro Ezure offers a preview of Japan's hopes and expectations at the tournament and beyond.

In total, Japan is sending 124 athletes to compete at the Pyeongchang Olympics in South Korea -- at what will be the first Winter Olympics to take place in Asia since the 1998 Games in Nagano. The number of Japanese athletes being sent this time is the highest for any Winter Olympics held overseas. The upcoming games will also be a springboard for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

Regarding medal expectations, the Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC) aims to improve on the country's previous tally of eight medals earned at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, by "picking up at least nine medals including several gold." However, the JOC is approaching the tournament with a lineup that could even surpass the tally of 10 medals (five gold, one silver, four bronze), achieved at the Nagano Olympics.

One Japanese athlete particularly under the spotlight going into the event is figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu, who was the only Japanese competitor to win gold at Sochi. The hugely popular skater injured his right ankle in November 2017, forcing him to take time off from competing, but there have since been reports from his coach that Hanyu has resumed training and improved his condition.

However, there is scant information within Japan about his current situation -- causing onlookers to feel even more curious about how Hanyu will fare at Pyeongchang. Despite concerns about his physical condition, the country will be hoping that he pulls off some dazzling performances, at a tournament that will be seen as his return from injury.

Meanwhile, as for other events, speed skating also stands out, particularly as Japan failed to earn any medals in this field at Sochi in 2014. This time, sprint queen Nao Kodaira and middle-to-long distance skater Miho Takagi are expected to do well.

With regard to skiing, the spotlight will be on jumper Sara Takanashi in the women's event, even though she has not been performing at her best this season, and 45-year-old veteran Noriaki Kasai in the men's, who will be competing in his eighth Winter Olympics. In addition, Akito Watabe, who picked up a silver medal in the Nordic combined event at Sochi has raised his game, and is aiming to become the first Japanese person to win an individual gold medal in his chosen sport at the Olympics. There are also a number of promising teenage snowboarders, with the chances of a male snowboarder picking up a half-pipe medal looking good.

Beyond the Pyeongchang Olympics, there is of course the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo. The JOC is hoping that the performance of the Japanese athletes at Pyeongchang will help trigger even more excitement for the summer tournament in two years' time. However, in my opinion, I want Japan's athletes to focus on the Olympics in front of them and not worry about Tokyo 2020 for the time being.

In 2022, the Winter Olympics will be held in Beijing, meaning that the world will be focusing on three Asian Olympic tournaments in a row between 2018 and 2022. I want these three countries, which arguably lead Asia in sports, to raise the level of competitiveness of Asia as a whole through friendly rivalry, and to help deepen understanding across the region through the power of sports. (By Yoshihiro Ezure, Sports Department)

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