TOKYO, Jan 6 (Reuters) - With a total of 11 medals, including three golds, ski jumping has provided rich pickings at the Winter Olympics for Japan, and the Games in Pyeongchang will provide another chance for them to excel in front of a prime-time Asian audience.
The combination of strength, timing and technique makes it a sport that has long appealed to the Japanese, with the epicentre of ski jumping excellence located on the north island of Hokkaido.
It was there that the gold-silver-bronze triumph, led by Yukio Kasaya, at the 1972 Olympics on home turf in Sapporo took place, cementing the status of the sport there.
“I was starter at the top of the jump, next to all the jumpers. I was hoping Kasaya would win, but I never expected we’d take 1-2-3,” Kunitsugu Chiba, the coach of that 1972 ski jumping team, told Reuters.
The event was held at the Miyanmori ski jumping stadium on the eastern slope of Mount Okura, where the sport is said to have been first practised in Japan.
Students at the local university, who had seen it in Europe in the early 1900s and brought it back to Japan with them, built jumps around Sapporo to practise on.
The jump used for the Olympics was originally built in the early 1930s with support from Prince Chichibu, a brother of Emperor Hirohito.
By the time Sapporo hosted the 1972 Games, Japan had only won one medal (a silver at the 1956 Games in Turin) at a Winter Olympics, and the country was hungry for success.
“Kasaya had the entire nation’s hopes on his shoulders, and he’d been winning recent competitions, so expectations were high,” Chiba said.
Kasaya took gold in front of a packed crowd at the Miyanomori site, Akitsugu Konno took silver and Seiji Aochi took bronze in a clean sweep.
The 1-2-3 finish ended up being the only medals the host nation won in Sapporo and the trio became the toast of the nation, creating a yardstick that generations of ski jumpers that followed have had a hard time measuring up to, despite a team silver in 1994 and gold at the 1998 event in Nagano.
The 77-year-old Chiba said it’s hard to specify why Japan has enjoyed such relative success in ski jumping compared to other winter sports.
“I’ve been asked that a lot, and it’s hard to answer. I think it might be because Japanese are detail-oriented,” he explained.
”Running needs sheer physical strength. The cross-country coaches say that, that no matter how hard our athletes try, it’s hard to compete (against physically bigger foreigners).
“Jumping is more technical, and not so much physical strength.”
Despite its population of around 3,500, the small town of Shimokawa, some 220km from Sapporo, has provided more than its fair share of Olympic ski jumpers to the national team.
Noriaki Kasai is set to compete in his eighth Olympic Games at the age of 45, while 23-year-old Yuki Ito is at the other end of the scale, expected to make her Olympic debut in Pyeongchang.
“To nurture athletes in this sport, it’s very important that they be near ski jumps. You have to have snow, you have to have people living near snow, and you have to have the facilities to jump,” Katsuhiko Ito, father of Yuki and a member of the board of education in Shimokawa, told Reuters.
“We have four jumps in our town. Some of them are just a 15-20 minute walk for elementary school students. It’s a sport that requires a major facility, so you need to have that nearby.”
With the Winter Games taking place in Asia for the first time in 20 years, the stage is set for the Japanese to shine once again in the sport of ski jumping. (Writing by Philip O‘Connor; editing by Sudipto Ganguly)