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Gearing Up for the Games / Importing coaches helps raise the bar

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Track cycling coach Benoit Vetu, right, works with an athlete in this photo taken on July 7.

The Yomiuri ShimbunThis is the sixth installment of a series.

Japanese sports associations with medal aspirations at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics have been increasingly successful in recruiting foreign coaches with proven records. Such efforts are beginning to yield results.

Benoit Vetu, the French head coach of Japan’s short distance track cycling team, delivered a brutally honest assessment as he reflected on the state of the entire program at the time he was appointed.

“In Japan, there wasn’t anything that could be considered training,” said Vetu, who previously coached France, Russia and China.

The “medal contractor,” whose athletes won five medals across three Olympic Games, is training Japan’s Olympic hopefuls at a rapid pace. He expressed confidence about the team’s chances at the 2020 Games, saying, “Although there is not much time, it is enough time if everything that needs to be done is done.”

The men’s elite keirin competition was held at the Japan Track Cup international tournament on July 7 at the Izu Velodrome in Shizuoka Prefecture.

Cyclist Yuta Wakimoto took the lead with 1½ half laps to go, and went on to win the race. Relying on pure leg strength to defeat the world’s top athletes instead of tactics in the final stretch is one result of “Vetu’s style.”

Japan won medals in short distance track cycling at the Athens and Beijing Olympics under the leadership of foreign coaches, but Koichi Nakano, chairman of the Japan Cycling Federation’s committee to develop athletes, said, “There was no coaching that linked to the next Olympic Games,” because of a focus on short-term results. Japanese short distance cyclists failed to win medals at the next two Olympics, and stagnated at World Cup and world championship competitions.

After Vetu was appointed in autumn of 2016, Wakimoto won at a World Cup meet last December. It was the country’s first gold medal in men’s keirin at a World Cup competition since 2003.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Former Japan softball coach Taeko Utsugi, left, gives pointers to a member of the French national team.

The team’s results are gradually improving, with Tomoyuki Kawabata also winning silver in men’s keirin at worlds in March.

To lay the groundwork to compete at the Olympics, Vetu designated the Japan Cycle Sports Center in Izu, Shizuoka Prefecture, as the team’s training base, and called on Olympic candidates to relocate nearby.

“When you are aiming to win an Olympic medal, every aspect of life is about training,” Vetu said.

In the past, individual athletes prepared on their own, attending international events while the pro keirin circuit was not in session. Now, most competitors train together every day, unless they are on the road for domestic keirin events.

During training, gears and loads are fine-tuned using a “power meter” that quantifies athletes’ output. Weight training is also emphasized to build the strength necessary to master large gears with higher loads and speeds.

Vetu’s style has also started to have an impact on the domestic circuit. Olympic contenders Yudai Nitta and Kazunari Watanabe won pro keirin GI category races last year.

In the past, training camps for the national team were often avoided as they “made athletes forget the feeling of pro keirin races.” However, the athletes have responded positively to the emphasis on explosive power in training, and that has led to better results at competitions.

Outside of cycling, the men’s handball team, which has not appeared in the Olympics since the 1988 Seoul Games, has appointed Dagur Sigurdsson — who led Germany to the bronze medal at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics — as coach. The men’s basketball team is under the direction of Julio Lamas, who coached Argentina to fourth place at the London Olympics.

Removal of cap on subsidies

The increased number of foreign coaches was facilitated by changes made by the Japanese Olympic Committee in fiscal 2016 to its policy on subsidizing coaches’ compensation.

After it was decided in September 2013 that Tokyo would host the 2020 Olympics, the JOC set a goal of winning the “third most gold medals in the world.” The committee required each sports association to set goals and formulate a plan for every year through 2020, and to submit budgets that would facilitate achievement of its goals. One obstacle was the high compensation needed to contract top-class foreign coaches.

The JOC previously capped its subsidy for the hiring of full-time coaches per association at ¥9.24 million per year. Since fiscal 2016, however, a special clause was enacted that nullified the cap if the coach was expected to produce results. The handball, canoe and field hockey teams are among those that have utilized this clause. An official for the Japan Rowing Association said, “It would have been tough to cover all expenses, including family living expenses, without the special clause,” enabling it to hire Xavier Dorfman, a French gold medalist in rowing who has trained many Olympic athletes.

Japan posted strong results at the Pyeongchang Olympics thanks to the guidance of coaches Johan de Wit in speed skating and James Lind in curling. Whether this success will be replicated in two years is of great interest.

Helping a rival for sake of sport

“OK, hit it!” The voice of Taeko Utsugi, who led Japan to two Olympic medals as the coach of the women’s softball team, reverberated throughout Tokyo Dome on June 20.

Utsugi offered encouragement to the French team, which is ranked 24th in the world and eighth in Europe, as the players hit off a batting tee. The reason for her enthusiasm? “Unless [the French team] becomes good, there is no 2024, and I want softball to be better known,” she said.

Softball will return to the Tokyo Games with its future in limbo. Though it will be part of the Olympics for the first time since Japan won gold at the 2008 Beijing Games, it has yet to be decided whether it will be included in the 2024 Paris Olympics, as it has only been added to the 2020 program as an additional sport.

The growth in popularity of softball across Europe will be key to its continuation at the Olympics, prompting Japan and France to sign a partnership agreement in June. To strengthen and support the French team — a potential rival at the Olympics — Japan will send over coaches and players.

The number of softball teams registered in Japan has experienced steady decline since 1993. The Japan Softball Association targets children when promoting the sport, but Utsugi said, “Now that softball has been included again for the Tokyo Olympics, children will be able to work hard with that as their goal. Unless efforts are made toward the 2024 Olympics, however, it will be tough for children in the future.”

The continuation of softball at the Paris Olympics and beyond is a matter of the sport’s survival.

The Japanese softball team, which is aiming for gold at the Tokyo Olympics, is also looking at 2024 and beyond. Misaki Katsumata and Saori Yamauchi, who are both promising 18-year-old players for Bic Camera Takasaki, were added to the national team roster for the Softball World Championship in August.

“I think this will be the last tournament for our ace Yukiko Ueno,” said national team coach Reika Utsugi, referring to the ace pitcher of Japan’s 2008 gold medal-winning team. “The younger players can learn a lot just being around her. With that in mind, I decided to select younger players so they could gain experience.”

The sport’s moment in the spotlight must not end in 2020. Passion can be seen in the eyes of the coaches committed to softball’s future.

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