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GOLD RUSH:
Japanese Athletes Win 52 Events at Asian Games

January 21, 1999

Koji Ito (right) begins the anchor leg for the gold-medal-winning 4x100m relay squad. (Kyodo)

The thirteenth Asian Games, a major sporting event held once every four years, took place in Bangkok, Thailand, from December 6 to 20, 1998, with the participation of about 10,000 athletes and officials from 41 countries and regions. The mammoth tournament featured 377 events in 36 athletic categories--even more than the summer Olympics. With 52 golds, Japan finished third in the medal count behind China (129) and South Korea (65); although this was less than the 64 golds that Japan earned at the previous Asian Games, it was still a successful trip for the team.

Naoko Takahashi: Running Toward Sydney
Japan got off to a flying start at the games when Naoko Takahashi took the team's first Asian Games gold in the women's marathon. Takahashi's spirited performance led the way for Japan's successful runners. In sweltering heat of 32 degrees centigrade (89 Fahrenheit), Takahashi broke away from the pack at the start and finished an easy winner in 2:21:47, the fifth fastest time in the world. In doing so, she broke her own Japanese record by a staggering four minutes and one second. At one stage Takahashi was running so well that it looked as if she might even break the world record of 2:20:47.

Koji Ito: Short-Distance Triple Crown
In the final stretch of the games, Japan's hero was Koji Ito, who won three gold medals in men's sprints. First of all Ito set a new Asian record of 10:00 seconds to win the 100-meter semifinals; that time pushed Ito up to tenth place in the 1998 world rankings. He then won the final with a time of 10:05 seconds, making him the first Japanese in 28 years to be crowned the fastest man in the Asian Games. Ito also won the 200-meter race, his specialty, in 20:25 seconds and anchored the winning Japanese 4x100 meter relay team. Ito thus became the first Japanese male athlete ever to win the short-distance triple crown.

Ito was full of praise for Takahashi's performance. "Before the games," he said, "I thought that if I performed badly, I would be able to blame it on the heat or the fact that the games were in December, which is usually the off-season for Japanese athletes. But then on the very first day Takahashi did so well that I knew such excuses wouldn't pass muster. My achievements in Bangkok were thanks to Takahashi." Adding glory to his gold medals, on the final day Ito was voted the most outstanding athlete of the games by reporters covering the event. Ito announced that he would set aside some of the 100,000 U.S. dollars in award money to a charity in Thailand.

World-Class Swim
The Japanese swimming squad was spectacular at the games. Takashi Yamamoto in particular shone with his records and victories in men's butterfly events. He won both the 100-meter and 200-meter events, clocking a games record 53.34 seconds in the former and 1:56.75, a new Japanese record and the sixth fastest time ever in the world, in the latter.

In women's events, Tomoko Hagiwara, a high school student, won the 100-meter backstroke, 200-meter backstroke, and 400-meter medley relay for a triple crown. In the two individual races the young Hagiwara even outpaced teammate Mai Nakamura, herself a silver medalist in the world championships.

Also, in synchronized swimming, Miya Tachibana--who had taken the bronze at the world championships in January 1998--showed her mettle again by winning both solo and duet gold medals.

Kanako Yonekura: Cinderella Girl
With an especially dramatic victory, Kanako Yonekura became the first Japanese in 28 years to take a gold medal in the women's badminton singles event. Yonekura had to face extremely tough competition, but she succeeded against all odds in defeating the world champion from China in the quarterfinals and the third-placed player in the world, also from China, in the final match. It was a glorious performance, worthy of an Olympic triumph, and the spirited Yonekura became the Cinderella girl of Bangkok. After the final match, Yonekura remarked that she had put everything into the game. Her victory was proof that Japanese athletes, who are said to be weak under the pressure of major events, can succeed if they go for it. Now sports fans are keeping their attention on Yonekura and the rest of the Japanese squad as they begin preparing for the summer Olympics to be held in Sydney in 2000.

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Trends in JapanEdited 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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