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Thursday, Aug. 16, 2012

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Welcome home: Gold medal-winning wrestler Tatsuhiro Yonemitsu leads a group of Olympic athletes through Narita International Airport on Tuesday. KYODO

Team Japan makes triumphant return from London


Staff writer

After the 17-day extravaganza of the London Olympics, the Japanese delegation — which gave the country excitement and insomnia on a daily basis — made a triumphant return home on Tuesday.

At a welcome ceremony in Tokyo, Japan Olympic Committee president Tsunekazu Takeda proudly stated that the athletes and staff gave their all in their respective events at the games, giving the nation its all-time best total of 38 medals and 80 top-eight finishes.

"You impressed not just the Japanese people, but the rest of the world as well," Takeda told the delegation. "You unified the Japanese people."

Former Olympian and vice leader of the delegation, Seiko Hashimoto, said at a news conference after the ceremony that the remarkable progress by female athletes and Japan's success in team events had to be noted. Of the 38 medals, female athletes contributed 17, while eight came from non-individual events.

" 'Gender-free' was one of the themes (put up by the International Olympics Committee) for the Olympics," Hashimoto said. "Our female athletes came through, and I think it's worth mentioning. In particular they were great in team events, and I can imagine they really moved the Japanese people."

Japan's women earned medals in badminton doubles, team table tennis, team archery and volleyball. But what was perhaps most symbolic was the silver medal-winning performance of the Nadeshiko Japan soccer team.

Team captain Aya Miyama confessed that she thought the team, which won last year's Women's World Cup in Germany, may have disappointed its supporters back home.

"I was privileged and happy to play with such wonderful teammates and win the silver medal," the midfielder said. "But there was such high expectation on us and we came up short of winning the gold. So maybe we didn't live up to the expectations that people had for us.

"But when we arrived back at Narita (International Airport), fans there were cheering us and it made us realize what we had achieved."

Meanwhile, some of the male athletes were motivated by the women's success.

Freestyle wrestler Tatsuhiro Yonemitsu, who gave Japan its 38th and final medal (also Japan's all-time 400th medal in the Summer Olympics) by grabbing gold in the men's 66-kg class, hoped that his performance in London would bring attention to the men's competition, too.

"I know that women's wrestling is more popular (in Japan)," said Yonemitsu, whose medal was the first gold for a Japanese male wrestler since the 1988 Seoul Games. "But as I won the gold medal this time, I hope that men's wrestling is going to catch up."

Despite the number of the medals, however, Team Japan still has issues ahead of the 2016 Rio De Janeiro Olympics and possible 2020 Tokyo Games. Before the London Games, Japan set a goal of winning at least 15 gold medals to move into the top five in the medal standings. Instead, it came home with just seven.

"We'd talked with the strategic team and concluded that we could win something like 15 golds, had the athletes been able to perform to their potential." Team Japan leader Haruki Uemura said. "But we were a little naive. For example, (swimming's Ryosuke) Irie beat out the world champion (Ryan Lochte in the men's 200 backstroke), but it still wasn't enough to win."

Tyler Clary of the United States grabbed the gold, 0.37 seconds ahead of Irie, with a new Olympic record of 1 minute, 53.41 seconds.

Mitsuo Tsukahara, the delegation manager and a five-time Olympic gold medalist in gymnastics, said Japan would need to take further steps in the developments of athletes, scouring the whole country, if it wants to win more Olympic gold medals in the future.

"From now on, we'll need to be more active in digging up talent," Tsukahara said. "And it's important that we create better circumstances to win golds, utilizing the National Training Center among others."



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