Sports

Akito Watabe hopes thrilling Nordic combined finishes will help broaden sport’s appeal in Japan


After adding two bronze medals to his Olympic trophy cabinet in Nordic combined, Akito Watabe is convinced the Beijing Games’ thrilling finishes generated new fans for the sport in Japan.

The 33-year-old individual normal hill silver medalist in both the Sochi and Pyeongchang Winter Games secured his first medal in Beijing in the individual large hill on Tuesday before guiding his country to its first medal in the relay since gold in 1992 and 1994, with both medals being decided only in the final seconds.

“It’s been an Olympics which I can confidently say we’ve provided the viewers with fun races. Frankly, it’s something I’m really happy about,” Watabe said.

In the individual large hill, Watabe led late in the cross country race in a breathless three-way sprint with eventual gold and silver winners Joergen Graabak and Jens Luraas Oftebro of Norway, while he propelled Japan from fourth to second as the third skier in the relay.

Ryota Yamamoto, the anchor, then kept the pressure on German normal hill champion Vinzenz Geiger down the final stretch as the two battled for the silver medal.

“It’s important to win a medal, but I was able to renew my sense that it’s also important to have a good race that conveys the appeal of the sport,” said Watabe, who remained coy about his future Olympic plans.

“I’ve strived thinking what sort of race I can have to make things interesting and earn people’s support, as well as what the winning athletes are like. My mind is not refreshed enough to say I’ve completely given up (on going for Olympic gold), although I can’t think of what’s lying ahead.”

With the podium finish at the relay, he and his younger sibling Yoshito, the first relay skier, became the first Japanese brothers to medal in the Winter Olympics.

Despite a 12-second deficit after the ski jump, Yoshito finished the first leg just 0.3 back of the leader.

“It’s beginning to sink in, but it’s still a bit like walking on air,” said the 30-year-old, who medaled for the first time in his third Games.

“I had to psyche myself up for the team event and managed to offer some positives. The result came after everyone fulfilled their roles and I’m happy to have been part of it,” Yoshito said.

Veteran Hideaki Nagai also got his first medal after three Games and the 38-year-old echoed the elder Watabe’s sentiment that the electrifying races should generate new interest.

“I think it’s become a bit of a cue for more attention to get paid,” Nagai said. “I hope we can also get good results at the World Cup so this won’t be called a fluke.”

Yamamoto said he was still catching up with the reality of becoming an Olympic medalist, but was quickly shifting his focus to 2026.

“It’s significant to get good results at big tournaments,” the 24-year-old jumping specialist said. “We should aim for a medal with better color in four years.”

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