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[JAPAN SPORTS NOTEBOOK] Sprinter Ryota Yamagata Thrust Into the Spotlight as Japan’s Olympic Captain

“I feel a great responsibility being appointed captain of the Japanese delegation to the Olympics held in our own nation.”

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Ryota Yamagata set the national record in the men's 100-meter sprint (9.95 seconds) on June 6 in Tottori.

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Ryota Yamagata, who ran the fastest-ever 100 meters for a Japanese sprinter last month, will receive the honor of a lifetime at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.

The veteran runner was named captain of Japan’s Olympic team, putting the spotlight on him during the Opening Ceremony at the New National Stadium on July 23. The Japanese Olympic Committee made the announcement on Thursday, July 1, with table tennis player Kasumi Ishikawa chosen as vice captain.

As figureheads of the host nation’s Olympic squad, Yamagata and Ishikawa, both of whom are getting set to compete in the Summer Games for the third time, will take the Olympic oath at the Opening Ceremony.

The 29-year-old Yamagata was a member of Japan’s 4×100-meter relay unit at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. The quartet, which also featured Shota Iizuka, Aska Cambridge and Yoshihide Kiryu, shocked track experts by earning the silver medal and setting an Asian record of 37.60 seconds in the relay.

Yamagata previously served as team captain for the Japan delegation at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta. 

“I feel a great responsibility being appointed captain of the Japanese delegation to the Olympics held in our own nation,” Yamagata said at a send-off party on June 29, according to Kyodo News.

“We’re in a very difficult situation but that doesn’t change what we have to do. We’ll proudly bear the nation’s emblem on our chests, abide by the code of conduct and strive to do our best to deliver as much good news to the people as possible.”

On June 6, Yamagata clocked 9.95 in the 100 at the Fuse Sprint track meet in Tottori, besting the previous mark of 9.97 set by fellow Tokyo Olympian Abdul Hakim Sani Brown in June 2019.

Ishikawa, Japan’s first Olympic vice captain, is serving in a new role established by the JOC to promote gender equality, Kyodo News reported.

In her first Olympics in 2012, Ishikawa was a part of Japan’s silver medal-winning table tennis team in London. She collected a bronze in the same event in Rio.

NBA forward Rui Hachimura and wrestler Yui Sasaki, who is expected to contend for a title in the women’s 50-kg division, are leading contenders to hold the Hinomaru as the Japan Olympic squad enters the New National Stadium during the Opening Ceremony, according to published reports.

Olympic Digest 

Samoan Weightlifting Team Pulls Out of Olympics

Citing fears of an increase in COVID-19 cases in Japan, the three-member Samoa weightlifting team will not compete in the Tokyo Olympics.

The Samoa Olympic Committee made the announcement on Thursday, July 1

Eight athletes participating in other sports will represent the Pacific island nation at the Summer Games.

Richardson Ineligible for 100 Meters After Marijuana Test

U.S. women’s 100-meter champion Sha’Carri Richardson is ineligible to compete in the race at the Tokyo Olympics after testing positive for marijuana at the U.S. Olympic trials last month.

Richardson won the 100-meter final in 10.86 seconds on June 19 in Eugene, Oregon. Her positive drug test disqualified her, and she’s currently serving a 30-day suspension. The ban ends on July 27, which means she still has a possible shot at running in the sprint relays.

During an American TV appearance on Friday, July 2, Richardson said she smoked marijuana in the aftermath of her mother’s recent death.

“I was definitely triggered and blinded by emotions, blinded by badness, and hurting, and hiding hurt,” the 21-year-old said on NBC. “I know I can’t hide myself, so in some type of way, I was trying to hide my pain.”

Japan’s Men’s 3×3 Basketball Team Announced

In addition to the traditional full-court game, which has been on the Olympic sports menu since 1936, 3×3 basketball will be contested at the Summer Games for the first time in Tokyo.

On Saturday, July 3, the Japan Basketball Association released the names of the four players who’ll comprise the host nation’s 3×3 squad for the Tokyo Games.

Guards Ryuto Yasuoka (Akita Northern Happinets) and Keisei Tominaga (University of Nebraska) and forwards Ira Brown (Osaka Evessa) and Tomoya Ochiai (Koshigaya Alphas) have been named Olympians.

The Japan squad has a blend of youth (Tominaga is 20 and Yasuoka is 26) and veteran talent (Brown is 38 and Ochiai is 34).

The men’s and women’s 3×3 hoop tournaments, both featuring 12 national teams, are scheduled to be held at Aomi Urban Sports Park near Tokyo Bay from July 24-28.

Japan upset top-ranked Serbia in June, and Ochiai said that gives the team confidence.

“I feel like we’re in really close contention for medals,” Ochiai was quoted as saying by Reuters

The 195-cm Ochiai brings a hard-nosed defensive mindset to the court and his throwback style of play is a nod to NBA defensive stalwart Dennis Rodman. He’s also known as “The Worm,” Rodman’s famous moniker.

Brown, a naturalized Japanese citizen, attended Gonzaga University. A former minor-league pitcher, the Texas native wrapped up his college basketball career at age 26.

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Olympic Torch Relay Moved Off Public Roads in Tokyo

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government announced on June 29 that the opening half of the Olympic Torch Relay’s 15-day tour of the capital prefecture will be held away from public roads and without spectators.

The decision was made as a COVID-19 preventive measure.

As a result, the torch will travel off public roads from July 9-17. But some relays will be held on islands and outside the 23 special wards, which will take place on public roads.

The latter portion of the Olympic Torch Relay until July 23.

An official announcement about protocols for the latter half of the relay is pending.

Outlying areas have also been affected by restrictions. For example, on Saturday, July 3, in Chiba Prefecture, “the relay was not allowed to take place in the streets, leaving torchbearers to perform their duties on a stage,” The Associated Press reported. 

Noteworthy: Soccer legend Zico carried the torch on Sunday, July 4 in Kashima, Ibaraki Prefecture.

Japan’s Paralympic Squad Biggest Ever

The Tokyo Paralympics will feature Japan’s biggest-ever Paralympic squad.

As of Friday, July 2, Team Japan’s list of athletes includes 221 Paralympians, according to the Japanese Paralympic Committee.

That number will increase to approximately 250, the JPC said. 

Two of the 22 paralympic sports’ national squads have not yet been announced.

Already, though, the number of Japanese Paralympians far exceeds the previous high, the 2004 Athens contingent of 163.

The Paralympics begins on August 24.

Baseball

Ohtani Reaches 30 Home Runs Before All-Star Break

Week after week, Shohei Ohtani is setting a new standard of excellence for himself. 

He already has a career-high total in home runs (30) for a single season, with Nos. 29 and 30 coming against the Baltimore Orioles on Friday, July 2. 

Ohtani also stole a base and scored the winning run in the Los Angeles Angels’ 8-7 home victory.

As an MLB rookie, he hit 22 in 2018. He also slugged 22 with the NPB’s Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in 2016.

After the game, Angels manager Joe Maddon marveled at Ohtani’s meteoric rise.

“Every time he swings the bat it looks like it could be a home run,” Maddon told reporters, according to The Associated Press.

Ohtani reached 30 home runs in the Angels’ 81st game ー exactly the midway point of the 162-game season. He is the first MLB player to do so since St. Louis Cardinals star Albert Pujols in the 2009 season. 

What’s more, Ohtani’s feat marks the 22nd time an MLB player has reached 30 homers by the 81st game.

Ohtani is on an impressive power surge over the past few weeks. He has hammered 13 home runs in the last 15 games (through July 2). And he has 12 stolen bases this season.

“He pretty much single handedly beat us. He’s the hottest hitter on the planet right now,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde was quoted as saying by The Associated Press. “It’s deep home runs. You walk him and he’s going to steal second on you. It’s plus plus speed and plus plus power and he’s locked in.”

In 2004, former New York Yankees star Hideki Matsui set the Japanese record for home runs (31).

Matsui, affectionately known as “Godzilla,” during his baseball career, recently penned a tribute to former Yankees teammate Derek Jeter for The Players’ Tribune. The article was published on the website’s English and Japanese. Read the English version here.

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Mariners’ Kikuchi Earns Sixth Victory

Seattle Mariners southpaw Yusei Kikuchi, who’s in his third season in the majors, improved to 6-3 on the season by tossing seven innings of one-run ball against the Toronto Blue Jays on Thursday, July 1.

The Mariners defeated the Blue Jays 7-2 in Buffalo, New York, where Toronto is playing its home games due to travel restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kikuchi allowed five hits, walked one and struck out six. He surrendered a leadoff homer to Marcus Semien in the first inning.

For Kikuchi, it was his fifth consecutive winning decision. He has been pitching well of late, with a 1.01 ERA over 26 2/3 innings in his last four starts.

“I haven’t gone through a stretch like this here in the [United] States,” Kikuchi was quoted as saying through a translator after the game, according to The Associated Press. “It’s not like I’ve had my best stuff every time out, but I was able to make my adjustments and go deep into games. That’s the biggest thing for me.”

Last season, Kikuchi posted a 2-4 record. He went 6-11 in his first MLB season in 2019.

Lions’ Sasaki Gets Quickest Ejection in NPB History

Seibu Lions starter Takeru Sasaki beaned Orix Buffaloes leadoff hitter Shuehi Fukuda in the head in the first inning on Friday, July 2. Sasaki’s third pitch of the game was his last.

Per NPB rules, the 25-year-old left-hander received an automatic ejection for hitting an opponent on the head with a pitch. In doing so, his ejection is the quickest in NPB history.

The previous record was four pitches, set by Yomiuri Giants hurler Seishu Hatake on September 30, 2017. 

Sasaki issued an apology to Fukuda and to baseball fans after the game.

Soccer

Frontale Steamroll Past ACL Foe United City FC

Kawasaki Frontale improved to 3-0 in Group I play in the Asian Champions League with an 8-0 victory over the Philippines’ United City FC on Friday, July 2 in Tashkent.

Five Frontale players scored in the rout, including Kento Tachibanada, who notched a hat trick, and Kaoru Mitoma, who bagged two goals.

Earlier in the week, J. League clubs Nagoya Grampus and Gamba Osaka also played in ACL contests.

Grampus defeated hailand’s Ratchaburi FC 3-0 in a Group G match on Thursday, July 1 in Bangkok. It was Nagoya’s fourth straight shutout win in a row in the tourney.

Gamba and Thai club Chiangrai United settled for a 1-1 tie in a Group H clash on July 2 in Tashkent.

Golf

Matsuyama Withdraws From PGA Event After Testing Positive for COVID-19

Less than three months after becoming the first Japanese to win the Masters, Hideki Matsuyama was forced to pull out of a PGA event after testing positive for COVID-19.

Matsuyama, who shot an even-par 70 in the opening round of the Rocket Mortgage Classic at Detroit Golf Club, withdrew from the tourney before the second round on Friday, July 2.

“It’s disappointing to receive this news and have to withdraw from the Rocket Mortgage Classic,” Matsuyama said in a statement.

“I will take all the necessary precautions to ensure the health and safety of all others. I appreciate and thank everyone for their concern in advance. I look forward to a full recovery and returning to competition as soon as possible.”

Will the world’s 18th-ranked male golfer be able to compete in the British Open, which is scheduled to be held July 15-18?

To be cleared for competition, Matsuyama now needs a) to be quarantined for 10 days or b) have a pair of negative tests more than 24 hours apart.

Matsuyama is penciled in to compete for Japan at the Olympic men’s golf tournament, which gets underway July 29 at Kasumigaseki Country Club in Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture.

Tennis

Tournaments Canceled in Japan for Second Straight Year

The Rakuten Japan Open and Toray Pan Pacific Open will not be held in 2021, marking the second straight year that both events have been canceled due to the global pandemic.

The Japan Open is an ATP Tour event. The men’s tournament was scheduled to be held October 4-10 in Tokyo.

The Pan Pacific Open is a WTA Tour event. It was slated to be held in September.

October’s China Open, a men’s and women’s tournament, in Beijing has also been called off, the ATP said, citing the same reason as the decision made by Japan Open organizers: “due to restrictions related to COVID-19.”

The Pan Pacific Open executive committee released a statement on Friday, July 2 after announcing the 2021 event has been canceled.

“The Executive Committee, together with WTA, looked at every possible way to make this international tournament happen, by implementing various measures to prevent the spread of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) including the idea of restricting admissions, in order to prioritize the health and safety of everyone involved including players, officials, ball boys and girls, stewards, sponsors and partners, suppliers and contractors, media, guests and all other staff,” read the statement. “However, also in consideration of the border enforcement and quarantine measures for those traveling to Japan, the Executive Committee made a heartrending decision that it was best to cancel the tournament.”

Quotes of the Week

“Special players present something thrilling for us to witness regularly. So fortunate 2 see this & will never take for granted. His joy for the game, appreciation of the fans truly overflows.”

Jose Mota, a Los Angeles Angels broadcaster, tweeted on July 2 about Shohei Ohtani’s approach to the game.

“He was saying his ‘leg doesn’t hurt’ … He’s been training really well at the stable. His charges have gotten better and he has been moving really well.”

Miyagino, Hakuho’s stablemaster, on the legendary yokozuna’s physical condition in the run-up to the July Grand Sumo Tournament in Nagoya. The basho begins on July 4, and the injury-plagued Hakuho is seeking to complete a 15-day tournament for the first time since winning the Spring Basho in March 2020. Knee injuries and knee surgery have taken their toll on the 36-year-old, who hasn’t wrestled in a match since Day 2 of the 2021 Spring Basho.

“I always thought, ‘everyone should have a bike.’ It’s a very good change of pace in everyday life.”

Rui Hachimura tells reporters about his affinity for cycling during an online news conference on June 29. The Washington Wizards forward, who has been an avid cyclist since his junior high school days in Toyama, officially announced his partnership with bicycle company Cannondale in May.



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.