Snowboarders set to lead Japan in Beijing while Yuzuru Hanyu chases history

Japan’s hopes of a record medal tally at the Beijing Winter Games rests on the shoulders of its snowboarding high-flyers, while Yuzuru Hanyu’s stellar performance at the national championships on his return from injury puts Olympic history within his grasp.

Yuto Totsuka, Ayumu Hirano and Ruka Hirano in the men’s snowboard halfpipe and female riders Reira Iwabuchi and Kokomo Murase in the same event will all challenge for the podium at the Games, which begin on Feb. 4, with many showing they are still contenders despite the disruptions caused by COVID-19 over the past two years.

Some of the female riders will double up in the slopestyle event with medals also likely, while others will go large at Beijing’s spectacular Big Air Shougang venue.

Hanyu is chasing his third straight Olympic gold medal, a feat that would put him beside Sweden’s Gillis Grafstroem, who did it in the 1920s, as the only male figure skaters to three-peat in singles.

An ankle injury cast a dark cloud over Hanyu’s Olympic prospects, but his return, with a game-changing quad axel apparently in his repertoire, has set him on course for a head-to-head showdown with American Nathan Chen — a skater who needs an Olympic gold to fill the last remaining gap in his trophy cabinet.

Japan has never won a snowboarding gold medal at the Olympic Games, although Ayumu Hirano came close twice with silvers in 2014 and 2018.

Having attempted to make his mark in skateboarding at the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games but failing to make the men’s park final, Hirano has returned to the snow.

He demonstrated in late December that he has not wasted any time in finding his bindings when he landed the first-ever in-competition triple cork — or three off-axis flips — at December’s Dew Tour halfpipe event in Copper Mountain, Colorado.

“They can count on so many good riders, especially in halfpipe,” Italian journalist and broadcaster Giacomo Margutti recently said of Japan’s team.

“In Beijing, everyone in the know expects an all-Japanese podium sweep in the men’s snowboard halfpipe event with Yuto Totsuka, and Ayumu and Ruka Hirano, or a couple of others.”

“Three of them already came up with never-been-done triple corks (when training at the Stomping Grounds session in Switzerland), the rest of the field is stopped at ‘only’ two.”

Margutti, who has covered the World Cup tour on behalf of the International Ski Federation for a decade and has interviewed snowboard gold medalists at the last four Winter Olympics, said legendary American Shaun White or Australian Scotty James are the only riders standing in the way of the Japanese halfpipe juggernaut.

“In the women’s big air event, there are two Japanese, Reira Iwabuchi and Kokomo Murase, who can definitely aim for gold,” Margutti believes. “And in the men’s as well, there are at least three kids who can get a medal.”

“All in all, the Japanese snowboard team will be stronger than ever at these Olympics,” he said.

This prediction has so far played out on the World Cup tour, with the Hiranos and Totsuka taking three of the top four spots in the world halfpipe standings, while Iwabuchi and Murase are the top two in the women’s overall park and pipe standings.

In slopestyle, Murase and Miyabi Onitsuka went 1-2 in the first event of the season, held on Saturday in Calgary, Canada. The former’s clean run, featuring back-to-back 720s on what she described as a “very difficult” course, resulted in her first World Cup slopestyle win.

With the snowboarders looking like they will hold up their end for Japan, attention turns to the other sports where athletes must shine if the nation is to win a record number of medals.

Yuzuru Hanyu will be trying to become the first male figure skater to win three straight Olympic gold medals since Sweden's Gillis Grafstroem in the 1920s. | KYODO
Yuzuru Hanyu will be trying to become the first male figure skater to win three straight Olympic gold medals since Sweden’s Gillis Grafstroem in the 1920s. | KYODO

In multiple medal table forecasts, the Olympic sports analytics gurus at Nielsen’s Gracenote have predicted Japan will reach a record medal total surpassing the previous high of 13 set in 2018 in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

They believe Hanyu will miss gold, but say their algorithm does not factor in the national championships where, just over a week ago, he barely missed landing the quad axel that could separate him from the field in Beijing.

“I felt as though I was about to cry even before the six-minute warmup,” Hanyu said after his first performance of an injury-hit season, adding he was relieved to put together programs that garnered a 322.36-point total that is significantly higher than any score recorded in international competition this season.

Hanyu is chasing Grafstroem’s Olympic gold-winning record set between 1920 and 1928. Hanyu is only the third man behind Austrian Karl Schafer in 1932 and 1936 and American Dick Button in 1948 and 1952, to have repeated as champion since then.

Shoma Uno, who earned silver in men’s singles in Pyeongchang, is also eyeing another medal, and Yuma Kagiyama is also looking to earn a medal. On the women’s side, a podium finish is less likely with Kaori Sakamoto, fresh off scoring 234.06 to secure her second national title, facing stiff competition from a trio of world-leading Russian skaters.

Speedskaters Miho Takagi (left) and Nao Kodaira are expected to be two of Japan's top medal hopes during the Beijing Olympics. | KYODO
Speedskaters Miho Takagi (left) and Nao Kodaira are expected to be two of Japan’s top medal hopes during the Beijing Olympics. | KYODO

Japan can also expect medals in speedskating, ski jumping, Nordic combined and freestyle skiing.

Speedskating delivered three of Japan’s four gold medals in South Korea, and some of those same athletes will be on the ice in China.

Miho Takagi has won three 1,500-meter World Cup events this season while taking one win over 1,000, leaving her in a great position to add to the medal of each type she won in 2018. She is also likely to join the team pursuit squad in its Olympic title defense.

Joining Takagi as a 1,000-meter contender is Nao Kodaira. The sprint specialist will be looking to double up again after winning the 500 gold and 1,000 silver in Pyeongchang. She has not dominated either event on the World Cup circuit this season, but has logged wins and multiple podiums in both to make sure she remains in Olympic medal contention.

The most surprising Japanese speedskater of the season has been sprinter Tatsuya Shinhama. He forced his way into the Olympic medal conversation with two early World Cup wins, but has lagged as the season has progressed.

If he can regain his edge, he has a chance to become Japan’s first male medalist in the sport since 2010.

Sara Takanashi has achieved much in her ski jumping career, including 61 World Cup wins, but Olympic gold has eluded her. With only one victory so far this season, her wait may go on.

Ryoyu Kobayashi, the most successful men’s jumper in Japan’s history, looks likely to beat her to a gold medal. Since mid-December, he has racked up four World Cup wins and some momentum that could carry him to the top of the Olympic podium.

Moguls skier Ikuma Horishima will have to overcome Canada’s reigning Olympic champion and six-time world champion Mikael Kingsbury if he is to win his first gold, while Akito Watabe, a silver medalist at the 2014 and 2018 Games, has some major Nordic combined competition to surmount in his chase for gold.

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