Record medal haul in reach for Japan

The Japan NewsGiven the spectacular run of results by Japanese athletes in recent months, medal hopes for Japan at the upcoming Pyeongchang Olympics are as high as an Ayumu Hirano frontside double cork 1440.

If you don’t know what that means, you’ll learn soon enough, as Hirano represents a new generation of Japanese who are taking their sports to new levels, and who give the nation more than a good chance to take home its largest-ever Olympic medal haul.

In the first Winter Olympics in Asia since Nagano 1998, the Japanese Olympic Committee has set a goal of at least nine medals, one more than were won four years ago in Sochi. Of more significance are the expectations for multiple gold medals, after coming away with just one from Sochi.

Starting with Chiharu Igaya’s silver medal in the men’s slalom at the 1956 Cortina d’Ampezzo Games, Japan has won a total of 45 medals — 10 golds, 17 silvers and 18 bronzes. Half of the golds were captured at Nagano, when the squad set the standard for future delegations to shoot for with 10 medals overall.

The team to Pyeongchang, where the Games will open on Friday, has legitimate gold medal candidates in speed skating, snowboarding, the Nordic combined and figure skating, while ski jumping and freestyle skiing could also see some landings on the podium.

“With [speed skater Nao] Kodaira as team captain, we’ve put together the strongest squad,” delegation head Yasuo Saito said at a press conference. “If we put on our best performances, we can expect it to lead to wonderful results.”

For snowboarder Hirano and Nordic combined competitor Akito Watabe, a gold medal would be a step up from the silvers they won at Sochi in 2014. And both have recently shown that anything less would be a letdown.

Hirano, 19, dazzled fans when he won the superpipe event at the Winter X Games. His performance featured the first-ever back-to-back 1440 maneuvers — the number refers to the degree of the spin, which in this case means four rotations — in the history of the competition.

So stunned and elated were the TV announcers that one rhetorically asked of Hirano, “What planet are you from?!”

Watabe, 29, has been just as otherworldly. He won four consecutive World Cup meets over the past two weeks, including a sweep on three successive days in Seefeld, Austria, to move to the top of the World Cup standings. Speech

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