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Gearing Up for the Games / Training hubs key to success

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The Chiba Port Arena in Chiba is a training base for wheelchair basketball and other Paralympic sports.

The Yomiuri ShimbunThis is the fifth installment of a series.

Training hubs have been established throughout Japan in a bid to develop athletes of various sports. With some located in regions with rich athletic traditions and others located in areas with budding sports landscapes, these hubs play a key role in preparations for the Tokyo Olympics.

The Okinawa Karate Kaikan hall, for instance, stands on what used to be a castle on a hill in Tomigusuku, Okinawa Prefecture. Upon entering the spacious dojo, visitors are greeted by the enthusiastic voices of athletes echoing throughout the hall.

The dojo, which includes four match venues, was completed last year at a cost of roughly ¥6.5 billion. It serves as the developmental center for karate practitioners in the prefecture, which is known as the birthplace of the martial art. There are said to be 130 million karate practitioners worldwide, and the sport has been added to the program for the Tokyo Olympics. Completion of the facility has long been a priority for the prefecture, which is home to about 400 dojos.

The hall also hosts leading athletes from overseas who come to train.

“Seeing high-level international athletes training here has made me want to compete in the Olympics in the future,” said Maho Oshiro, 13, who is set to compete in the national junior high school championships in August.

After karate was selected for the 2020 Tokyo Games, Masaya Uehara, 42, of Naha, began inviting promising athletes from dojos around the prefecture for intensive monthly training sessions. “The opening of the Karate Kaikan, which is equipped with excellent facilities, has motivated athletes,” he said.

The prefecture has allocated about ¥250 million for an athletic training program since fiscal 2016. In addition to funding talented karate athletes in the kata category, it also seeks to host training camps.

“Okinawa as a whole is like an amusement park for people who aspire to master karate. I hope the hall becomes a symbol both for the competitive and traditional aspects of the sport,” said Tetsuo Yamakawa, 53, manager of the Okinawa Prefecture Karate promotion division.

Nippon Life Insurance gymnasium in Kaizuka, Osaka Prefecture, serves as a training base for table tennis. It hosted the corporate team Nichibo Kaizuka, which produced key members of the women’s national volleyball team, dubbed the “Oriental Witches,” that won the gold medal at the ’64 Games.

Yasukazu Murakami, who coached the Nippon Life women’s table tennis team to a silver medal at the London Games and a bronze medal at the Rio Games in the women’s team event, established the Junior Assist Table Tennis Academy for junior high and high school girls. Murakami serves as the representative of the academy and coaches them.

“We can defeat China if we set up a lot of training locations with positive surroundings. I need to take the lead role,” Murakami said.

The top-class facilities feature high ceilings, bright lighting, wooden floors for domestic matches, and mats for international matches.

Twelve junior high school and high school athletes, who were scouted nationwide by Murakami, practice together, including Hina Hayata, who belongs to the Nippon Life team and is ranked 15th in the world.

The academy has partnered with the local government. Said Tatsuo Fujihara, the mayor of Kaizuka: “Murakami and I share the goal of raising the Japanese flag on the center pole at the Olympics. Sports give the people hope and strength.”

Other leading regional bases include Kitami, Hokkaido, which hosts training sessions for LS Kitami, the team that earned the bronze medal in women’s curling at the Pyeongchang Games, and Kashiwazaki, Niigata Prefecture, which hosted the National Athletic Meet in 1964 and promotes itself as a “water polo city.”

The environment for Paralympic training facilities is also improving.

In 2014, the Chiba city government added facilities to its local port arena, which can be used for wheelchair rugby and other events. The facilities also welcome wheelchair basketball and can be used as a training location for wheelchair sports.

The arena has hosted international tournaments, with Chiba aiming to become “a holy site for wheelchair sports.”

Though not an Olympic sport, Sano, Tochigi Prefecture, aims to make itself a “cricket city.” The city government has set up cricket fields at five locations, including the completion in March of an international cricket ground that can host world-level tournaments.

Regional NTCs face challenges

The Ajinomoto National Training Center in Tokyo cannot support training for certain sports. Since 2007, the national government has designated a number of local facilities as “Event-Specific Affiliated NTC facilities,” which support training for such sports and prioritize use by top athletes.

Five facilities were initially designated for winter sports training in 2007, with the number of facilities increasing to 40 this year. Some are equipped with cutting-edge technology for motion analysis, ultrasonic diagnostics and other purposes.

However, certain challenges have arisen since the program began. According to a Japan Sports Agency survey of 27 facilities conducted in fiscal 2015, seven said they had problems with deterioration and equipment shortages. Another 11 said they lacked regular medical staff, and even now, most facilities are short on staff members. Nutritional management is also said to be insufficient in many cases.

On the other hand, the operational status of many facilities has changed over the years. The Spiral, a sliding sport complex built in Nagano for the 1998 Nagano Games, was designated as a base facility in 2007.

However, the Nagano city government has decided to discontinue ice making after this winter because of the high cost. Operating the complex cost the city about ¥100 million per year, making its price per user the highest among six similar facilities.

The Spiral has been designated a base facility for another four years from this fiscal year, but will be used during the summer to practice sledding takeoffs on courses with rails. It will also be used for roller luge, in which wheels are placed on sleds.

The agency’s council has currently explored how to deal with challenges facing the national training center, including the purpose of other base facilities. The council plans to decide by the end of this year on improvement measures at the facilities for next fiscal year.

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