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Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2008

ODDS AND EVENS

Kitajima, softball team showed mettle in Beijing


Editor's note: This is the second of a two-part series. Part one appeared in Sunday's newspaper.

Ed Odeven

Japan's Olympians produced magical moments and lasting memories at the 2008 Beijing Summer Games.

Repeat champions captured our attention and solidified their reputation as classy winners, and in the glittering Water Cube, Japan's swimming superstar made the biggest splash of all.

Kosuke Kitajima proved his performance at the 2004 Athens Games was no fluke. Stronger and faster in 2008, the Tokyo native earned a double gold medal repeat in the 100-and 200-meter breaststroke events, becoming the first male swimmer to ever do so.

When the stakes are highest, Kitajima performs at his best. He left Beijing as Japan's lone double gold medalist from the XXIX Olympiad and gave a sterling performance in the breaststroke leg of Japan's bronze medal-earning 4x100 medley relay.

Kitajima reminded us that great champions don't simply show up and win a competition every now and then. The work they put in between premier competitions is what makes them special athletes, as evidenced by Kitajima's 10 years of grueling, twice-a-year training camps at Northern Arizona University's Center for High Altitude Training.

Backstroke specialist Reiko Nakamura grabbed the bronze in the 200-meter event for the second time, proving her accomplishment in Athens was no accident.

Judoka Masato Uchishiba, the Athens champion, gave Japan its first trip to the top of the medal stand on Aug. 10, collecting the gold for his 66-kg men's title.

It was the start of Japan's nine-gold, six-silver, 10-bronze medal haul in Beijing. Japan didn't match its 37-medal effort, including a record 16 golds, from Athens, but who's to say Japan will ever do that again?

Japan's judoka collected three more golds and seven total medals, the nation's top effort in the Olympics.

Ayumi Tanimoto followed suit in the women's 63-kg category, using a textbook ippon to lock up her second Olympic gold.

Masae Ueno replicated Tanimoto's medal-winning formula, using an ippon to do the trick and defend the gold she won in Athens at 70 kg.

Judoka Satoshi Ishii was crowned the over-100 kg champion. His stylish, emotional celebration rivaled Kitajima's for the best photo opportunity given to Japan and international photographers, many of whom had the biggest appetites I had ever seen during our hasty 1 a.m. visits to the media food court.

Ryoko Tani, Japan's most celebrated judoka, didn't win a third consecutive gold. But she proved that motherhood couldn't stop her from chasing a remarkable fifth Olympic medal.

In the post-event press conference, Tani thoughtfully answered questions about her legacy, her longevity and her future plans. What's clear is this: Tani will remain a contender, for the medal at the 2012 London Games if she stays healthy and competitive in the next four years.

For Japan, the most pleasant surprise came on the softball diamond where Haruka Saito's team shocked the world by beating the U.S. powerhouse squad, the three-time reigning champion, in the gold medal game.

Ace pitcher Yukiko Ueno made the stunning upset possible, remaining composed and making sharp pitches a day after working all 21 innings in a pair of games against the United States and Australia.

In doing so, Ueno's name will appear in the history books for giving one of the great workhorse performances of all time. One Web site, Sportingo.com, called it "one of the 10 greatest Beijing moments that you just might have missed."

Sadly, softball will not be contested at the 2012 Summer Olympics because the IOC, which seems to think more people care about BMX racing, removed baseball and softball from the Olympic program after the Beijing Games.

News photo
Superb performance: Yukiko Ueno pitched 28 innings over the last two days of the Olympic softball competition, leading Japan to its first-ever gold medal in the event. AP PHOTO

Ueno and her teammates deserve better than this. They deserve a chance to defend their title in London in four years.

On National Stadium's warm, speedy surface, Japan's 4x100 relay squad produced another big surprise, nabbing the bronze medal. Anchor Nobuhara Asahara, 36, ran the final leg for Japan to close the books on a 38.15-second effort.

Naoki Tsukuhara, Shingo Suetsugu and Shinji Takahira all ran smart, swift shifts before handing the baton to the next man. And when it was over, Japan had earned its first track medal in 80 years.

Saori Yoshida and Kaori Icho excelled on the wrestling mat, collecting their second straight Olympic titles in the 55-kg and 63-kg freestyle divisions, respectively. Both are superb athletes and their feats would get greater recognition if more nations fielded strong contenders in the sport.

Despite failing to win the team gold medal in the men's artistic gymnastics competition, Japan picked up a silver. It's an accomplishment that should be celebrated.

Led by Hiroyuki Tomita and Kohei Uchimura, Japan earned the medal with four newcomers on the six-man squad and faced overwhelming odds. China had a near-flawless performance before the home crowd en route to the gold.

* * * * *

For Japan's Olympic fans, disappointments left their mark on the 2008 Summer Games as well.

Marathon runner Mizuki Noguchi, the reigning women's champion, withdrew from the competition due to an injury. Her entire training regimen has come under scrutiny and her future remains as uncertain as Japan's political landscape at the present time.

What's more, Reiko Tosa, the bronze medalist at the 2007 IAAF World Athletics Championships in Osaka, pulled out of the Aug. 17 marathon after 25 km due to excruciating pain in her right leg. Teammate Yurika Nakamura placed 13th in her Olympic debut, ending Japan's hope of three straight golds in the event.

Dai Tamesue, a two-time bronze medalist in the 400-meter hurdles at worlds, failed to reach the final in his event.

Hammer thrower Koji Murofushi, the defending Olympic champ, placed a disappointing fifth on a hot, humid Beijing night.

Competing against top-ranked Zhang Yining of China, Japan's Olympic flag-bearer, Ai Fukuhara, was eliminated from the women's table tennis competition in the fourth round, a five-game match. Afterward, Zhang proclaimed, "I wanted to hurry up and win so I could go back and get some rest."

Such motivation never makes it easy for the opposition.

"Hoshino Japan" found itself stumbling to mediocrity from the get-go by losing to Cuba in its Olympic baseball opener. G.G. Sato's lousy fielding, bad relief pitching and a shaky offense didn't help matters, either.

Team Japan's medal-less performance left a bitter taste in the mouths of millions of fans. Its fourth-place finish was, well, unexpected.

In a span of 16 days, I attended baseball, basketball, beach volleyball, gymnastics, judo, softball, swimming, table tennis and track and field events in person. I watched TV broadcasts of archery, boxing, equestrian sports, cycling and many more, including trampoline.

Japan's athletes dotted the competition results of nearly every sport. While speaking with media members from more than 20 nations, the words "scrappy," "spirited" and "hardworking" were often used to describe Japan's athletes.

The words "special champions" were saved for a select few.

* * * * *

Ed Odeven's extensive Olympic coverage, including columns, notebooks and Beijing Postcard entries, is archived on The Japan Times' Web site. Visit www.japantimes.co.jp/sports/olympics.html to read previous stories.



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