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It's complicated: COVID-19, new events, home edge factors in Japan's Olympic gold rush

Skateboarders Momiji Nishiya, left, and Funa Nakayama are seen holding their medals the night after winning their events, at a press conference in Tokyo on July 27, 2021. (Pool photo)

TOKYO -- "Honestly, I'm shocked," a Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC) official connected with efforts to improve the country's performance said, unable to hide their surprise at Japan's strong showing in the first week of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

    As of the morning of July 29, almost a week on from the opening ceremony, Japan's gold medal total stood at 13, ahead of a then second place China's 12 and third place U.S. with 11. Many of the medals have come from Japan's "home sport" judo, but new events including skateboarding and surfing have also seen Japanese athletes reach the podium.

    Japan had collected a total of 142 gold medals in the Summer Olympics by Rio 2016. Close to 90% of them have come in four sports -- judo, wrestling, gymnastics and swimming.

    Immediately after Rio, the Japan Sports Agency stated that there were "only a limited number of events we can expect to win medals in" at Tokyo 2020. And so the JOC and the agency turned their attention to the five sports added to the 2020 games.

    The new sports were part of the International Olympic Committee's attempts to revolutionize the games, and allow the host city to propose events it wants to see held. The new events approved in 2016 were karate, which is from Japan's southernmost prefecture Okinawa, and the country's beloved sports of baseball and softball. Events aimed at young people, including skateboarding, surfing and sport climbing also had promising Japanese athletes.

    The sports agency classed the additional events as sports for special support, and allocated generous funds. The money made possible excursions and residential training in and out of Japan, as well as the hiring of more staff. Their efforts have been a success; already the newly-added sports have reaped six medals for Japan, three of them gold.

    The latter half of the Olympics includes contests in sports climbing, skateboarding park and baseball. Of the JOC's 30-gold-medal target, some officials think that 10 can be had in the new events.

    Partly, Japan's medal rush is also down to the host's geographical advantage as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The country's athletes have benefitted from being accustomed to well-prepared training centers offering clothing, food and accommodation, including the Ajinomoto National Training Center in Tokyo's Kita Ward, until right before their events. They haven't had to adjust to a time difference, either.

    An individual connected to one athletic organization revealed, "They've been allowed to unofficially practice in the venues, so they have advantages also from being accustomed to them."

    Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic has meant many delegations' arrival in Japan was delayed. On top of the time difference, some athletes have had to compete without having time to acclimatize to Japan's humidity. A senior JOC official said, "We cannot forget that Japan is in the host country position. If we only celebrate our own goldrush, we will be regarded coldly."

    (Japanese original by Yuta Kobayashi, Sports News Department)

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