TOKYO (Reuters) - When Japan’s top women wrestlers greeted the new year by plunging into the icy depths of Tokyo Bay, shivering onlookers chuckled in disbelief.
Olympic champion Saori Yoshida, one of the brave women who participated in the extreme bonding exercise, helped Japan to win a record haul of 37 medals at the 2004 Athens Olympics, including 16 golds.
Japan’s stated goals for this year’s Beijing Games are much more low-key, however.
Olympic officials began 2008 with a resolution to deflect the pressure from their athletes by predicting that they will take home only around five gold medals in August.
“We won eight gold medals in judo in Athens, which far exceeded expectations,” Japan’s Olympic delegation chief Tomiaki Fukuda told Reuters in an interview.
“What we are saying is that based on current form we can realistically only expect to win around five gold medals overall this time. We won more than we’d hoped for in 2004.”
Japan finished fifth in the Athens medals table, behind only the United States, China, Russia and Australia, but luck played a part, Fukuda said.
He cited Koji Murofushi’s hammer gold, awarded to him after Hungary’s Adrian Annus was stripped of first place for a doping violation.
“You have also got to remember how difficult it is to keep your powers at the very top level for four years,” added Fukuda. “That’s the hardest part.”
Japan’s eagerness to shield its athletes from the huge expectations of an Olympic-mad nation during the August 8-24 Games could be a smokescreen.
“We did make a similar prediction of five gold medals four years ago,” acknowledged Fukuda. “Our target will still be to get to double digits in gold medals, the same target we had in 2004.”
However, the odds are against swimmer Kosuke Kitajima producing another breaststroke double in Beijing, and repeat gold for Murofushi or for Mizuki Noguchi in the women’s marathon.
Kitajima is no longer the same brash athlete who celebrated after twice beating fierce American rival Brendan Hansen in 2004 by yelling, wild-eyed: “I kicked his butt!”
The 25-year-old has been undergoing rehabilitation in an oxygen chamber of the type used by footballer David Beckham in a bid to recover from a variety of injuries before Beijing.
“I’m focused on just one thing this year,” said Kitajima. “Hopefully I can go into the Olympics in the best possible frame of mind.”
Japan will also struggle to emulate their astonishing haul of eight judo gold medals this time with injury or loss of form haunting many Olympic champions.
The nation will still be glued to the television to see if motherhood has dimmed the competitive fire of Ryoko Tani as the pint-sized judoka, known as Ryoko Tamura before her marriage, goes for a third straight Olympic gold.
A time difference of just one hour will benefit Japan’s athletes as the summer Olympics return to Asia 20 years after the 1988 Games in Seoul.
Japan’s new National Training Centre, designed to provide the country’s athletes with a hi-tech edge, was opening its doors this week, another signal of Japanese intent.
“We expect great things from our big names — Kitajima, Noguchi, Murofushi...are all experienced and have the mental strength to succeed,” said Fukuda.
“At the same time we could do well in gymnastics, table tennis and baseball, as well as fencing, shooting and yachting.”
Editing by Clare Fallon