TOKYO (Reuters) - A young couple giggle as they point at a giant billboard of Olympic champion Kosuke Kitajima at Tokyo’s Shibuya station.
Japan’s swim king is poking his index finger skyward in his trademark “Number one” pose although his right hand appears, as if by photographer’s error, where his left should be.
Waiting on the platform, several people mimic the pose with both hands, tilting their heads in confusion before they work out that Kitajima’s right hand is not connected to his billboard body.
In the run-up to August’s Beijing Olympics, Japanese officials have been the ones who have appeared unable to tell right from left, however, twisting themselves in knots over swimwear.
They finally averted a potential revolt earlier this month by permitting swimmers to wear Speedo’s controversial LZR bodysuit in China and ditch approved Japanese manufacturers.
The about-turn came 48 hours after Kitajima had smashed the 200 meters breaststroke world record wearing an LZR, bringing the seemingly endless dithering to an abrupt halt.
The face that adorns billboards across Japan promoting a beauty clinic once given the seal of approval by David and Victoria Beckham has become a force for change.
Manufacturers Mizuno recently unveiled a swordfish-inspired design for Kitajima in response to the LZR before the 25-year-old switched allegiance in the wake of his electrifying swim in Tokyo, a performance that triggered a drop in Mizuno shares.
The two minutes 7.51 seconds it took for Kitajima to obliterate American rival Brendan Hansen’s previous world best cut through months of red tape and hand-wringing.
“We want to produce the best possible results in Beijing,” Japan Swimming Federation (JSF) president Toshihiro Hayashi said with sudden clarity two days later.
“We decided to give the swimmers the right to choose what swimsuits they wear at the Olympics.”
World records have tumbled over the last few months, almost all broken by swimmers wearing the LZR suit which Speedo says reduces drag, muscle oscillation and skin vibration.
The JSF’s anti-Speedo stance cracked only when one of their own swimmers broke a world record the first time he slipped into an LZR.
Kitajima had peeled off his tracksuit to reveal a T-shirt with the slogan “I am the swimmer” in a blunt message to Japanese officials on the first day of the Japan Open competition.
His respected coach Norimasa Hirai also demanded a level playing field in Beijing, likening the LZR to a “form of doping” such were the suit’s apparent advantages.
“We studied the issue from many angles,” continued Hayashi. “We all have the same heart on the issue.”
However, it is unlikely such clarity of vision would have allowed Japanese swimmers to breach existing contracts had it not been for Kitajima’s leading role in the saga.
“It’s a real pity Japanese swimmers can’t wear the LZR in Beijing,” he said before the JSF’s U-turn. “It’s terrific. You can see the results for yourself.”
Kitajima’s activism is a far cry from the 2004 Athens Olympics when he celebrated his 100 and 200 meters gold-medal double by pointing at Hansen and shouting: “I kicked his butt!”
A lack of maturity showed as Kitajima suffered an alarming dip in form after Athens. He has also been plagued with injuries and has played second fiddle to Hansen since 2004.
Kitajima hit rock bottom last August when he was forced to abandon training on the South Korean island of Jeju after tearing a muscle in his left leg.
His rehabilitation involved the use of an oxygen chamber of the type used by England midfielder Beckham before the 2002 World Cup and he has put himself through lung-bursting high altitude training since in a bid to be ready for Beijing.
“I feel like crying,” said Kitajima after his world record. “I kept getting beaten by Hansen but now I feel I can really aim for a gold medal.”
Editing by Clare Fallon