Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Winter Olympics Woe

Japan is having a horrorshow of an Olympics and no amount of smiling or subject changing on the part of the TV presenters will change that. Predicting a medal haul of 19 was at best naive and at worst arrogant, considering they are battling the seasoned cream of Europe and North America. As things stand - 3 days in, medal-less and with some of their big events behind them - Team Japan run the risk of coming away with absolutely nothing.

So why is this? Why have Japan thus far failed to deliver the promised goods?

For anyone that has lived in Japan for some time will know, there are two main reasons. First, Japanese athletes, having been raised from birth to believe that teamwork and group consensus are everything, are mentally at a disadvantage when it comes to individual events at the highest level. Snowboarding is a prime example - it's a "look at me!" sport in which the object is to outperform your opponents and show your skills off. In Japan, self-praise, especially when done publicly, is frowned upon due to people not wanting to appear boastful (the Japanese make up for this in many other ways, rest assured..) So it was no real surprise to many of us here to see a lack of air on jumps, a very conservative trick selection and some nervous tumbles (the girl that hit her arm overegged her pudding a little though.. to look at her on the ground with the officials crowding round you'd think she'd been a sniper victim. Very much a case of "I fucked up embarrassingly so I'll try to cover it with a suggestion of injury", the kind that top-flight footballers employ.

The second reason for Japan's weak showing is that the media build things up so much here that anything less than a spectacular team effort seems disastrous. Japan's domination of the Summer Olympic and World Championshop judo programmes were rightly celebrated - but this is a sport that originated in Japan and the country has been the zenith for all facets of Judo since time immemorial. It's a bit like snooker in the UK - despite the increasing strength of overseas players, the best players hail from the UK and it is the place to come to excel.

The Winter Olympics has re-exposed an anomaly in Japan- here is a country that seems to breathe the notion of doing your best and that trying hard is often better than actually doing something, yet when it comes to the olympics, all that matters is the medal haul. Obviously the media are very keen for Japan not to lose out to perennial enemies China and Korea, but it is the thirst for medals that has seemingly helped cripple the nation's performers. You can't really help but draw a comparison between this mentality and modern Japan. It's flash and often thrilling but beneath the surface there isn't a lot of substance. Japan's Olympic committee seem to view the medals as fashionable baubles, without really considering the time and effort it takes to train properly.

Japan really should take a leaf out of Britain's book. Great Britain are pretty shit at the winter olympics and they know it. When success does come, such as the last gasp gold medal for the women curlers in Salt Lake city 4 years ago, it was rightly lauded and for the next few weeks it was big news. A few months after the Olympics though, it lost it's lustre and the Scottish contingent of curlers could settle down to their real jobs again. The Great Britain team are probably the best in the world, but the media didn't and doesn't go into a frenzy and tar every other British competitor with the brush of expectation.

Will Japan win a medal at these games? Yeah, I think they'll probably take a bronze in the ice dancing but overall, regardless of how many medals are won between now and the Games' closing ceremony, this has been a startling wake up call to Japan, and it's something they will have to amend if they want to keep believing that they can compete with the very best in the world.


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