The Yomiuri Shimbun This is the second installment of a series.
On the afternoon of April 1 this year, an entrance ceremony was held for the 11th class of the Japanese Olympic Committee Elite Academy at the Ajinomoto National Training Center (NTC) in Kita Ward, Tokyo. Both the center and the academy turned 10 years old.
“Our graduates have left a shining legacy,” JOC Secretary General Eisuke Hiraoka told the group of nervous-looking young people. “I hope you will overcome hard times and do your very best.”
The academy is an elite training institution for athletically gifted junior high and high school students from around Japan. It is firmly established as the country’s largest base to strengthen its sports capabilities, and the students live there while training.
The NTC’s main three-story building has brown outer walls and a basement. The headquarters for improving performance in wrestling, judo, gymnastics, swimming and badminton — five sports in which Japan earned a total of 12 gold medals at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics — are here, with swimming at the neighboring Japan Institute of Sports Sciences (JISS).
In addition to facilities for boxing, weightlifting, wrestling, judo, table tennis, handball, volleyball, basketball, badminton and gymnastics, the indoor training center also houses a pool and training room.
The approach to judo, one of Japan’s particular strengths, completely changed upon the NTC’s completion. Until then, the national team’s training camps were often held in regional areas, but today they are almost all held at the NTC. In addition to training with the latest equipment and practicing in a big dojo with six official-size jodo mats, the team also uses JISS technology to help its athletes prepare to compete against foreign judokas.
“After my match finished, a video of a match featuring my next opponent was sent to the device, so I could start studying her moves right away. That was a big help,” said Mika Sugimoto, the silver medalist at the 2012 London Olympics in the women’s judo heavyweight 78-kilogram division.
During training camps, judoists practice together with athletes from different sports, such as wrestling and rugby.
Strong coaching lineup
One of the NTC’s main projects is the Elite Academy Program, in which junior high and high school students hone their skills at the live-in facilities while attending school in the neighborhood and elsewhere.
The NTC accepted wrestling and table tennis players as its first students at the academy, and later expanded its sports categories to include archery, boating, rifle shooting, diving and fencing, with 36 students training in seven sports this fiscal year.
Staff members who coach senior national team athletes are in charge of each sport. In 2017, Yui Susaki became one of the world’s top female wrestlers while enrolled in the academy. Table tennis’ Miu Hirano beat China’s three top players to win the Asian Table Tennis Championships, and Tomokazu Harimoto has also been unstoppable at table tennis tournaments both in Japan and overseas.
“Ever since the national team for elementary school students was formed in 2001, the academy’s improvement efforts have been on the right track,” said Yoshihito Miyazaki, head of development at the Japan Table Tennis Association. The growth of the junior generation, including Hirano and Harimoto, “is largely due to the fact that we’ve created space where top athletes gather to train hard,” Miyazaki said.
Coaches and other staff in charge of each sport also regularly meet and share results with each other, which helps create rivalries among the athletes in different sports.
Some sports opt out
Given these great achievements, some in the JOC think the academy should increase the number of sports that it works to boost. There are, however, sports associations that do not participate in the project.
“Gymnastics clubs have spread nationwide and the sport has been strengthened at a grassroots level,” an official in charge of gymnastics said. Officials involved in judo and swimming also said they would rather not rely on the academy, citing such reasons as the fact that those sports are strengthened at private dojo and swimming clubs throughout Japan.
An official in charge of track and field said, “In general, specialized improvement programs are offered to high school students and older — the age at which athletes can gain speed and power.” The official said the difference between this period and the age at which the academy provides training was one reason for not relying on the academy: “We want elementary and junior high school students to simply enjoy track and field.”
Students perform chores
Students at the academy train at the NTC’s indoor training center and other facilities, and live in four-student rooms in the Athletes’ Village. They do their own cleaning, laundry and other chores. The staff in charge of daily life guidance is not made up of former athletes, but people from the private sector. Academy director Kazushige Hirano said, “Sports are a part of society, so we want to foster societal values.”
Parents are given full explanations of their children’s athletic ability and everyday life at annual meetings. In some cases, the students change course if they cannot adapt to the environment.
Hirano said the academy responds flexibily to students. “As with table tennis’ Miu Hirano, who skipped a grade and finished early, our students should move forward without hesitation if they find the path that’s right for them,” he said.
Added Hirano: “The goal is: What kind of life are these children going to live? It’s been 10 years and our responsibility is greater than ever.”
One night in late June, nine athletes, including Harimoto, were taking a linguistics class to polish the four elements of listening, speaking, reading and writing. Teacher Koichi Takayanagi explained to students the importance of words.
“When you’re interviewed after victory, you should not just say, ‘It was good.’ What was good? Convey your feeling to your supporters,” Takayanagi said.
He stressed the significance of linguistic education: “If you don’t have the ability to listen to [what other people are saying], you won’t be able to understand advice from your coach, and, likewise, if you don’t have a good command of communication, you won’t be able to convey your feelings.”
A day in the life of Kihara
Because of training camps and tours, July 9 was the last day of the first period at the academy for table tennis player Miyuu Kihara. We documented her entire day.
She woke up at 7:15 a.m. After breakfast, Kihara left for school just after 8 a.m. She returned shortly after 12:40 p.m., changed into her uniform and started practice with Kasumi Ishikawa and other top athletes at 2 p.m. Hitting practice that simulated various situations lasted about three hours.
By the time her weight training, the last of the day, was done, it was past 7 p.m. After a quick dinner she did laundry, studied and took care of other tasks, and was in bed before 11 p.m.
Kihara is friendly with her fellow table tennis players, but never forgets the notion that they are her rivals.