Veterans lead the Japanese charge

By Xinhua,

Beijing : Athens Olympic champions will lead the Japanese Olympic delegation to Beijing, aiming to create a new medal record to follow their stunning performance in 2004.

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Powered by a maturing batch of female athletes and a renaissance in judo, swimming, wrestling and gymnastics, Japan swept 16 gold medals in Athens. The last time they achieved that feat was in the 1964 Games in Tokyo.

In each of the four Olympics before Athens, Japan had never garnered more than 10 golds. Most of Japan’s Athens winners will make it to Beijing. Judokas seized half of Japan’s golden haul in Athens.

Tadahiro Nomura, 34, is looking forward to winning his fourth consecutive Olympic gold in the men’s 60kg class while the leading heroine of Japanese judo Ryoko Tani is going for her third straight title in the women’s under-48kg division. The 33-year-old keeps a record of seven world titles.

“If we win two gold medals on the first day of judo, the momentum will spread to swimming and athletics,” said Haruki Uemura, general manager of the Japanese delegation. Judo competition starts the day after the opening ceremony August 8.

The judo team this year contains seven newcomers and as many Athens veterans including six defending champs. However, it won’t be easy for Japanese judokas to beat their Athens record, after they under-performed in the 2005 and 2007 world championships by collecting three golds apiece.

Double swimming champion Kosuke Kitajima shattered the men’s 200-meters breaststroke world record in Japan Open June 8, which had been kept by archrival Brendan Hansen of the United States since 2006.

Having never beaten Hansen since 2005, Kitajima bettered the world record by slipping into his controversial Speedo’s LZR Racer for the first time. The good news for Kitajima is that Hansen will only participate in the men’s 100-meters breaststroke as the American was disqualified in the 200 meters at the United States trials. But both swimmers will wear the record-breaking suit.

The Japanese swimming team include Reiko Nakamura and Yuko Nakanashi, both bronze medallists in Athens.

Koji Ueno, head coach of the Japanese swim team, said three medals would be acceptable though Japan won eight four years ago.

“World records have changed hands in the past weeks,” said Ueno. “The competition will be more difficult in August.”

Women’s marathon is expected to be a breakthrough for Japan in track and field. Mizuki Noguchi, winner at Athens, is aiming to become the first ever back-to-back Olympic winner in the women’s marathon.

Naoko Takahashi, winner at Sydney 2000, failed to make it to the national team. Reiko Tosa, 32, will be Noguchi’s teammate. Tosa won bronze at the 2007 world championships at Osaka, Japan.

Hammer throw gold medallist Koji Murofushi is a medal prospect but he only finished sixth at the 2007 world championships.

Four women wrestlers notched up two golds, one silver and one bronze in Athens when the sport made its Olympic debut. Saori Yoshida, Kaori Icho, Chiharu Icho and Kyoko Hamaguchi, the four Beijing-bound wrestlers, have combined to win 17 world championship titles.

But the Fantastic Four are not always unbeatable. Yoshida suffered her first defeat in 120 matches over seven years to American Marcie van Dusen during January’s World Cup. Hamaguchi lost to Wang Xu in the Athens Olympic semis, to whom she had never lost.

“We are targeting at least 10 gold medals and more than 30 medals,” said Tomiaki Fukuda, Japanese chef-de-mission. “It might be hard to achieve these marks but we need to aim high.”

Thirteen seven medals, including 16 golds, put Japan fifth in the Athens medal tally, behind the United States, China, Russia and Australia.

The 37 medals topped Japan’s previous record of 32 registered at the boycott-marred Los Angeles Games in 1984.

If Japan can’t beat its own Athens record in Beijing, it would at least like to see itself over South Korea on the medal standings.

South Korea, Japan’s archrival in almost everything, finished ninth with nine golds in the 2004 Games.