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Scientific prep helped Japan to speed skating team pursuit gold

From left, speed skaters Ayano Sato, Miho Takagi, Nana Takagi and Ayaka Kikuchi celebrate Japan's gold medal win at the Gangneung Oval at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, on Feb. 21, 2018. (Mainichi)

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- Japan's gold medal in the women's speed skating team pursuit on Feb. 21 brings the country's medal tally to 11, a Winter Olympic record for Japan that is also the result of meticulous, scientific preparation.

Victory over the speed skating powerhouse the Netherlands in Wednesday's final enabled three Team Japan skaters -- Miho and Nana Takagi and Ayano Sato -- to boost Japan's 2018 Olympic medal total to three gold, five silver, and three bronze -- surpassing Japan's previous record of five gold, one silver, and four bronze set at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics.

The Takagi sisters and Sato also smashed the Olympic record set by a star-studded Dutch team on Feb. 19 with a time of 2 minutes, 53.89 seconds.

A key part of the Japanese team's achievement was the decision to minimize air resistance during races in order to reduce the athletes' physical burden. The idea surfaced following extensive research by the Japan Institute of Sports Sciences (JISS), which looked into factors such as how high or low the skaters make themselves, distances between them, and how far they should shift to the right or left.

The Japan Skating Federation began research after the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics as it focused on a lack of an effective strategy in the team pursuit event, which was first introduced at the Turin Winter Games in 2006.

As a result, the JISS realized the importance of the trio not shifting to the right or left during races. The organization also discovered that a distance of up to about 125 or 130 centimeters between skaters does not have a negative effect on air resistance, resolving the athletes' worries about being spaced too far apart. These discoveries were all made possible following wind tunnel testing at speeds of 13.6 meters per second.

The research also revealed that the athletes should not get too close to each other or decelerate when changing lead skaters.

Commenting on the scientific approach, Hidenobu Kobai, 38, of the Japan Skating Federation says, "By winning an event that requires intelligent thought, Japan can boost its reputation as a technique powerhouse."

Wednesday's triumph also enabled Miho Takagi to clinch her third medal of the games, after her silver medal in the 1,500 meters, and a bronze in the 1,000 meters. Takagi is only the second Japanese athlete to win three medals at a single Winter Olympics, replicating the achievement of ski jumper Kazuyoshi Funaki (two golds, one silver) at the Nagano Games.

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