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[JAPAN SPORTS NOTEBOOK] ‘King Kohei’ Uchimura’s Fourth Olympics Adds Drama to Tokyo Games

Japan, the defending Olympic men’s gymnastics team champion, will compete at the Tokyo Games with four Olympic debutantes, Daiki Hashimoto, Kazuma Kaya, Wataru Tanigawa and Takeru Kitazono, with Uchimura set to vie for individual glory on the horizontal bar.

Ed Odeven

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Kohei Uchimura earned a spot to his fourth Olympics based on a tiebreaker that took into account his high-profile status within the sport’s global pecking order.

Uchimura, known as “King Kohei,” didn’t capture the men’s horizontal bar title at the National Apparatus Championships at Takasaki Arena on Sunday, June 6.

But with a runner-up finish in the event in Gunma Prefecture and a higher world ranking than vault specialist Hidenobu Yonekura, who walked off the mat tied in qualifying points, the gymnastics legend punched his ticket to the Japan men’s national team for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.

The 32-year-old Uchimura took second with 15.100 points in the horizontal bar event, narrowly trailing Daiki Hashimoto (15.133) in the hunt for the title.

Despite a dazzling performance on the bar in which he demonstrated great command of his overall routine, the two-time Olympic all-around champion (2012 London Games, 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games) had a slip-up that cost him a fraction of a point that was the razor-thin difference between first and second.



A day earlier, Uchimura led Yonekura in qualifying points during preliminaries.

Despite qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics on a technicality, Uchimura was far from ecstatic in his post-event comments to the press.

“I thought I failed to qualify but then was told I’m going. I don’t think I deserve it,” Uchimura told reporters. “I apologized to Yonekura afterwards.”

It was a revelatory moment shared by an all-time sports great and the 24-year-old Yonekura.

Uchimura collected the silver medal in the men’s all-around at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, signaling his arrival at the elite level on the global stage. What followed was a remarkable run from 2009-16, with all-around world titles in each of the non-Olympic years.

Indeed, he raised the bar so high ー he’s often called the great male gymnast of all time ー and set a standard of excellence that may never be equaled in our lifetimes.



Which is why Uchimura recognizes when he doesn’t replicate his own amazing feats.

“I don’t feel that after today’s performance, I really deserve to be called ‘King,’ ” Uchimura stated on June 6.

While injuries have hampered Uchimura’s intense training regimen in recent years, including forcing him to skip the 2019 world championships, he is eager to make an impact for Team Japan at the Tokyo Olympics.

Japan, the defending Olympic men’s team champion, will compete at the Tokyo Games with four Olympic debutantes, Hashimoto, Kazuma Kaya, Wataru Tanigawa and Takeru Kitazono.

Uchimura will have a supporting role instead of being the headline act in what is planned to be his Olympic swan song.

“It was really hard for me, as such an old man, to perform after the new generation,” Uchimura was quoted as saying by Reuters. “I may not be part of the all-around team effort, but there’s still things I can contribute due to my experience.”

RELATED:
[Corona ni Makeruna] King Kohei Joyful, Organizers Relieved as Meet Passes Important Test


Sumo

Asanoyama Receives One-Year Ban for Rules Violation

The Japan Sumo Association gave ozeki Asanoyama a one-year suspension for violating COVID-19 safety protocols in the run-up to the Summer Grand Sumo Tournament last month.

The one-year ban was announced on Friday, June 11.

Asanoyama’s salary will be slashed in half for six months at the outset of the suspension.

The Toyama Prefecture native, who has grappled in the elite makuuchi division since September 2017, ate at a dining establishment during the Summer Basho, a transgression reported by a weekly magazine.

The JSA’s pandemic rules require wrestlers to eat at home during the pandemic.

Baseball

Buffaloes’ Yoshida Having a Great Season at the Plate

Orix Buffaloes outfielder Masataka Yoshida is NPB’s leading hitter (.339 batting average) through Friday, June 11.

Yoshida, who hit .350 last season and won the Pacific League batting title, also leads Japanese pro baseball in on-base percentage (.430). In 230 at-bats, he has 12 strikeouts, which is the fewest among players eligible for the batting title. (To be eligible, a hitter needs a minimum of 3.1 plate appearances multiplied by the number of his club’s games.) 

The 27-year-old outfielder has walked 34 times. In 63 games, he’s slugged 12 home runs, putting him on pace to break his single-season record of 29 in 2019. He was No. 2 in batting average (.322) in the PL in 2019.

The Fukui Prefecture native made his NPB debut with the Buffaloes in 2016.

He was the PL’s monthly offensive MVP for May.

Yoshida’s biggest objective for this season has nothing to do with the gaudy statistics he has produced at the plate.

“One year without injury,” he said of his top goal, according to Daily Sports, before adding, “I want to aim for the best as a team and as an individual.” 

Eventful Day for Ohtani in Latest Pitching Appearance

Shohei Ohtani worked five innings in a no-decision in the Los Angeles Angels’ 6-5, 10-inning road victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks on June 11.

He allowed five hits and two runs, while walking two and striking out eight. Ohtani hit one batter and threw a wild pitch. He also balked twice in the fifth inning.

Ohtani, who batted second, moved to right field in the sixth inning.

He went 2-for-4 with an RBI double in the third, then scored to make it 3-0. He added his 15th double of the season in the seventh.

Ohtani also fouled a ball off his right knee in the third inning. He was in pain and slumped to the ground before consulting with the team’s medical trainers.

Then he went back into the batter’s box and clubbed his first double of the game.

“When he’s faced with a dilemma, he turns up the dial,” Angels manager Joe Maddon told reporters later.  “Love it. He knows exactly what he’s doing at all times, I mean exactly.”

Soccer

Postecoglou Leaves Marinos, Takes Over at Celtic

For Glasgow-based Celtic, there’s pressure to win the Scotish Premiership title every year, and new Celtic manager Ange Postecoglou joins the club weeks after it failed to win the league title for the first time in 10 years.

The departing Yokohama F. Marinos mentor was formally introduced as the storied franchise’s field boss on Thursday, June 10.

Postecoglou replaces Neil Lennon, who resigned earlier this year.

The 55-year-old Athens-born Postecoglou guided Marinos from 2018 to this week, leaving the J. League squad after he and team management tore up his coaching contract.

With Postecoglou at the helm, Marinos won their first J. League title in 15 years in 2019.

In a team-issued statement, Postecoglou said: “After three-and-a-half years I have made a decision to move on to a new challenge. Words cannot express the feeling of gratitude I have towards everyone involved at the football club.

“From the board of directors to the staff, this special group of players, and finally the most passionate supporters in the country, everyone has given me the best support any manager could want.”

Now he shifts his focus to the new challenge at Celtic, who finished runner-up to the Glasgow Rangers last season.

“I will be doing everything I can to get our great club back on top,” Postecoglou was quoted as saying by the BBC.

“We want to entertain our fans and we want to win, these are the objectives which I always set myself and which I now begin work on.

“The opportunity that has been given to me is one of the greatest honors in football.”

In 118 J. League matches in charge of Marinos, Postecoglou amassed 58 wins, 18 draws and 42 defeats.

Minamino Ties Honda’s National Team Scoring Record

Takumi Minamino scored in a seventh consecutive World Cup qualifier on Monday, June 7, helping Japan beat Tajikistan 4-1 in Suita, Osaka Prefecture.

With his 40th-minute strike, Minamino tied Keisuke Honda’s Samurai Blue scoring streak in World Cup qualifiers. Honda set the record in 2016.

“I’m happy to go level with such a great player,” Minamino told reporters at Panasonic Stadium, according to Kyodo News.

He continued: “Kyogo [Furuhashi] provided a good cross. I was targeting that space and I’m happy to have scored as it really was a nice pass.”

In related news, Japan topped Serbia 1-0 in another friendly on Friday, June 11. Junya Ito scored the lone goal in the 48th minute in Kobe.

Impressive Performance by Nadeshiko Japan

The Japan women’s national team throttled Ukraine 8-0 on Thursday, June 10 at Edion Stadium Hiroshima.

Mana Iwabuchi had two goals for Nadeshiko Japan in the friendly, while Yuzuho Shiokoshi added a brace in her international debut.

Japan, ranked No. 11 in the world, led 4-0 at halftime.

Basketball

Well-Traveled Coach Oketani Returns to Ryukyu

Dai Oketani directed the Ryukyu Golden Kings to new heights as the second head coach in team history, including a pair of bj-league championships (2008-09 and 2011-12).

Nine years after he last coached the Golden Kings, Oketani was hired as the team’s new coach.

Oketani replaces Hiroki Fujita, who takes over as his replacement with the B. League’s Sendai 89ers, a second-division team. Sendai went 35-24 this past season. Ryukyu, a B1 team, had a 40-16 record.

“Although the players and staff have changed, we will do our best to further strengthen the Kings’ winning culture that has been passed down,” said Oketani, who led the Iwate Big Bulls (2012-15), Osaka Evessa (2015-18) and 89ers (2018-21) before heading back to Okinawa.

The timeline of coaching moves happened within a span of three days. On Tuesday, June 8, it was announced that Oketani was leaving the 89ers. A day later, Fujita was named Sendai’s next coach. On Thursday, June 10, Oketani was unveiled as the next Golden Kings bench boss.

Team director Jun Yasunaga believes Oketani is the right leader for the Golden Kings right now.

“Mr. Oketani’s organizational strength, which respects the abilities of individual players but values ​​the discipline of the team, is what the current Kings need,” the longtime Ryukyu executive said in a statement, “and the appearance of players fighting with the new head coach in the 2021-22 season I can’t help but imagine and raise expectations.”

In other Golden Kings news, guard Koh Flippin, who began his pro career with the Chiba Jets in 2019, has signed a contract to play for the Okinawa-based club in 2021-22.

The 25-year-old Flippin was an integral part of the backcourt rotation for the title-winning Jets last season.

“Okinawa is a special place that is also my roots and identity,” said Flippin, who came off the bench in all 81 of his regular-season appearances in two seasons. 

“I promise to do my best to bring maximum success to the team. I am looking forward to seeing you all.”

A change of scenery could be a big boost for the young guard. And this reporter believes Flippin has the potential to be a great player in the B. League for years to come.

Alvark Sign Frontcourt Star Saiz

B. League Finals MVP Sebastian Saiz is on the move for the second straight offseason.

He left the Sunrockers Shibuya to sign with the Jets before the 2020-21 campaign. Now Saiz will bring his array of talents to the Alvark Tokyo, it was announced on June 10.

Saiz averaged 17.1 points, 11.7 rebounds and 1.0 blocks for Chiba in the regular season.

Tennis

Osaka to Skip Wimbledon Tune-Up Tournament

Naomi Osaka’s self-imposed break from tennis continues at the bett1 Open, also known as the German Open.

The grass-court event, which starts on Monday, June 14 in Berlin, is a key part of players’ preparation for Wimbledon, the only Grand Slam tournament held on grass.

Bett1 Open organizers confirmed on Monday, June 7 that Osaka would not compete in the upcoming event.

Wimbledon begins on June 28, and there’s no official word yet if Osaka will participate in the tourney.

After winning her first-round match at the French Open late last month, Osaka, who refused to participate in press conferences at the Grand Slam event, withdrew from the tournament citing “huge waves of anxiety.” 

Quotes of the Week

“I was able to win because my family supported me and was always there for me.”

Yuka Saso, who won the U.S. Women’s Open in a three-hole playoff over Nasa Hataoka on June 6 in San Francisco. Saso, 19, climbed from No. 40 to No. 9 in the world rankings after earning the first major victory of her career.

“I’ve wanted to break 10 seconds all this time, so I’m happy to have done so. I felt this was a meet I didn’t want to miss. I see the Olympics as being the real competition.”

ーSprinter Ryota Yamagata, on establishing the Japanese record in the men’s 100 meters (9.95 seconds) at the Fuse Sprint track meet on June 6 in Tottori.

“We have mandated for our staff to be vaccinated. We have encouraged, but not mandated, our athletes to be vaccinated. We’ve done a lot in terms of education to our athletes and coaches on how to mitigate risk.”

Max Siegel, USA Track and Field’s chief executive, on the governing body’s vaccination protocols for the Tokyo Olympics.



Editor’s note: Interested in submitting a news item for possible inclusion in the Japan Sports Notebook? Send an email with relevant information to e.odeven@japan-forward.com, or JAPAN Forward’s comment’s page  or Facebook page and look for future editions of Japan Sports Notebook on our website.

Author:  Ed Odeven

Follow Ed on JAPAN Forward’s [Japan Sports Notebook] here on Sundays,  in [Odds and Evens] here during the week, and Twitter @ed_odeven.

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Ed Odeven is a longtime sports journalist who previously worked for The Japan Times as its chief basketball reporter for nearly 14 years. He also covered a wide range of other sports for the newspaper, including at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2012 London Games. A graduate of Arizona State University, Odeven worked for several newspapers in the Grand Canyon State before moving to Japan. He has freelanced for dozens of media outlets around the world.