Japan’s Olympic hopes ride on women
Four women wrestlers, who share 20 Olympic and World Championship gold medals among them, are changing gender perceptions in a traditionally male-dominated society.
At a recent workout of Olympic hopefuls in Japan’s capital city, each of four wrestlers circles inside the mat, trying to tackle or pin the other – just another intense day of training by Japanese athletes ahead of the Beijing Games.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
But these athletes face extra pressures: Not only do their country’s top hopes for gold ride on their takedowns, but so do the hopes of thousands of young women who see in them a defiantly different role model.
It’s an unusual turn of events in a country where few people place high expectations on women. But the four wrestlers – Saori Yoshida, Kyoko Hamaguchi, and the Icho sisters, Kaori and Chiharu – are inspiring many Japanese by their performance in an event that debuted only at the 2004 Athens Games.
Between them, the athletes have collected 20 Olympic and world championship gold medals, according to the Japanese Olympic Committee. In Athens, all were awarded a medal, with Ms. Yoshida and Kaori Icho clinching golds, and Chiharu Icho and Ms. Hamaguchi capturing the silver and the bronze, respectively.
“When they perform brilliantly, that makes us think ‘I can also do something,’ ” says Kayo Tamura, a big NBA fan and foreign language major at Dokkyo University near Tokyo. “I think many young women feel uplifted.”
The wrestlers are not the only women garnering praise as Japanese gauge their country’s prospects for August. Also highly anticipated are the women’s judo and marathon events. Though Japan won only three to five medals in each of the Olympics between the 1988 Seoul Games and the 2000 Sydney Games, the country snagged 16 gold medals in Athens – matching its take in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Women were responsible for nine of those – five in judo, two in wrestling, one in marathon, and one in swimming.
Japanese athletes usually do well in judo, swimming, and the women’s marathon. But in 2000 at Sydney, Naoko Takahashi took Japan’s first Olympic gold medal in women’s track and field. In 2004, Mizuki Noguchi won the gold, beating Britain’s world-record holder Paula Radcliffe, and now she is gearing up to defend her title.
Judo icon Ryoko Tani, seven-time world women’s under-48 kilograms (about 105 lbs.) champion, is aiming for a third straight Olympic gold, while three other women judoka will also go for a second straight gold. And the former Ryoko Tamura, who married professional baseball player Yoshitomo Tani in 2003 and gave birth to a boy in late 2005, is eyeing another barrier-breaker.