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Why Did Japanese Athletes Win So Many Medals? (October 6, 2004)

Kitazawa Kosuke
Kitajima greets his coach, Hirai, after taking his second gold. (Jiji)
Japan won 37 medals at the Athens Olympics this summer, its highest total ever. There has been considerable discussion about just what it was that enabled Japanese athletes, who have sometimes been criticized for failing to produce their best on the big stage, to achieve their record-breaking medal tally in Athens. Japan won 16 golds, equaling its highest ever total, recorded on home soil at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. In terms of gold medals, the country finished a highly creditable fifth, behind the United States, China, Russia, and Australia. Judo and swimming yielded especially large medal hauls, but Japanese competitors also struck gold in the women's marathon, the men's team gymnastics, the men's hammer, and women's freestyle wrestling.

Taking a Scientific Approach
The question of what was behind this success is being examined from a number of angles. One explanation is that the sports world, which has in the past stressed the importance above all else of sheer grit, has introduced training systems that are designed on a rigorously scientific basis.

The training regimen of double gold medal-winning swimmer Kitajima Kosuke, who triumphed in the 100-meters and 200-meters breaststroke, is an example of these scientific methods. A group of five experts nicknamed "Team Kitajima" conducted a thorough analysis of Kitajima's swimming technique and used their findings to turn his natural talent into winning performances.

Team Kitajima consists of Hirai Norimasa, Kitajima's coach and mentor since his middle-school days, as well as specialists in image analysis, strategic analysis, physical enhancement, and conditioning (massage). With an eye on gold in Athens, Hirai formed Team Kitajima after the swimmer finished fourth at the Sydney Olympics, modeling the team on the group of experts that helped Italian skier Alberto Tomba to Olympic gold.

Much of Kitajima's success is, of course, due to his fortitude in coming through a punishing regime of high-altitude training, but this comprehensive approach that makes full use of science has also played a role in making him the supreme athlete he is today.

The Shift to Personalized Training
Improving Olympic competitors' performance used to be a job undertaken mainly by sports associations, but a feature of the past few years has been the creation of personalized training teams that transcend this setup.

Tani Ryoko, winner of the 48-kilogram division of women's judo, prepared for the Athens games with five training partners, each with their own different judo style. These preparations are said to have cost around ¥10 million ($91,000 at ¥110 to the dollar) and were made possible by assistance from Tani's employer, Toyota Motor Corp.

In order to form special personalized training teams, athletes need financial backing. One method to obtain this is to choose to work for a company that is willing to provide such assistance, while athletes are now also allowed to collect funds themselves from appearances in television commercials and other media sources.

A shift is taking place from uniform training led by sports associations to a system in which each athlete makes an individual choice as to what kind of training regimen suits him or her best. The Japanese Olympic team's record medal haul in Athens is a clear indication that this strategy is working.

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Copyright (c) 2004 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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