Japanese Team Hoists Flag in Nagano
Jan. 28, 1998
NAGANO, Japan (AP) _ After a sendoff in Tokyo from the prime minister himself and a welcome with everything short of a tickertape parade, Japan's largest Winter Games team hoisted its flag at the Olympic Village today.
And with hopes higher than ever that the home team in Nagano might have a good shot at the gold from some internationally tested stars, the rest of Japan appears to be finally getting into the Olympic mood.
Japan's athletes were welcomed into the village by kimono-clad women, local schoolchildren bearing flowers and cards, and droves of reporters and cameramen.
A traditional tea ceremony filled out the schedule.
Hours before the Japanese team's official arrival at the village, an enthusiastic, applauding crowd turned out at Nagano's main train station to welcome International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch.
``We are sure that the Olympic Games in Nagano will be a great success,'' he said.
The home country fans have good reason to be fired up.
Japan will have 313 athletes and team officials at the games, which are marking both their return to Asia and their return to Japan after a 26-year absence.
Sapporo, Japan, in 1972 staged the only other Winter Olympics in Asia.
But interest in the games had been lower than expected over the past year, in part because of a lack of public relations efforts by Nagano organizers and also because of a series of disputes with international sports federations over how the games would be run.
Since winning its bid for the games in 1991, Nagano's organizing committee has been slammed for allegedly providing sub-standard accommodations to VIPs, for making the hockey and figure skating venues too small and for setting up a downhill skiing course that was too short.
Such battles _ and concerns over the games swelling costs and impact on the environment _ poured cold water on public support.
While various concerns remain, a gradual boost in media coverage of Japan's athletes over the past month or so has helped create a more positive mood.
Fortunately for Nagano, there has been a lot of good news to report.
A trio of Japanese ski jumpers have turned in some of the best performances in the world recently and could be in a position to repeat the medal sweep Japan pulled off at Sapporo.
The three are world champion jumper Masahiko Harada, two-time Olympic Nordic combined team event gold medalist Kenji Ogiwara and Kazuyoshi Funaki.
``There is a lot of pressure, but I think I have built up the ability to get over that,'' Harada said at a sendoff reception in a swank Tokyo hotel Tuesday.
Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto was among the guests.
Along with the jumpers, Japan's Hiroyasu Shimizu and Manabu Horii are among the gold favorites in the speed skating sprints, and Satoru Terao is a contender in the 1,000-meters in the short track competition.
Japan has even found its own Cinderella story.
Snowboarder Yuri Yoshikawa emerged from almost total obscurity earlier this month with a win in a World Cup halfpipe event in San Candido, Italy, and the domestic media now follows her every move.
In a pre-Olympic competition this week, however, she finished only second because of an injured ankle.
Tadahiro Goto, spokesman for the team, said competing in Japan is a mixed blessing.
``It's certainly an advantage sometimes,'' he said. ``But it depends. It also puts great pressure on the athletes.''