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Wednesday, August 23, 2000
After dismal show in Atlanta, Japan trims Olympic presence

By ERIC TALMADGE -- Associated Press

 TOKYO -- Expect the Japanese to take home some golds in judo.

 Their amateur-pro mix will be competitive in baseball, and the women look strong in the marathon. They have some definite prospects in swimming and could bounce into history in the men's trampoline.

 But two years after hosting the Winter Olympics, Japan will have a toned-down presence for the Sydney Games. And one of the most controversial aspects isn't who's on the team, but who isn't -- and why not.

 With 310 athletes, Japan sent its biggest team to Atlanta four years ago. It performed so dismally, however, that the Japan Olympic Committee decided to revamp its standards and send only athletes deemed to have a good chance of winning a medal.

 That has translated into big cuts for Team Japan at Sydney, though with more than 260 athletes and nearly 170 officials, it still will be among the largest contingents.

 Japan's traveling ranks also have been trimmed by the failure of several women's teams to qualify -- the basketball, volleyball and soccer squads that went to Atlanta will be staying home this time.

 Suzu Chiba sued Japan's swimming federation after being left off the Sydney roster. Chiba is a two-time Olympian, winner of Japan's 200-meter freestyle swimming championship and holder of the world's second-fastest time in the 100 freestyle last year.

 Officials said she wasn't up to world-class competition, and the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sports last month ruled in their favor. The court found the federation was not sufficiently clear about its selection criteria and ordered it pay Chiba $5,900 for legal expenses.

 The three golds and 14 total medals in Atlanta were well under the goal of five golds and 30 medals. Japan's media pointed out that the ratio of athletes-to-medals was a mere 1.7 percent.

 And all of the golds came in judo, which is, after all, a Japanese invention.

 In Sydney, Japan is hoping to win eight golds. Though most -- officials are hinting at four to six -- are expected in judo, JOC officials say there are hopes for success elsewhere.

 Despite opposition from one of Japan's two major leagues, pros will join the baseball team. Japan took silver in Atlanta, bronze in Barcelona in 1992 and silver in Seoul in 1988. It won in Los Angeles in '84 when baseball was still a demonstration sport.

 The trio of Naoko Takahashi, Ari Ichihashi and Eri Yamaguchi are contenders in the women's marathon. Takahashi, 28, is seen as the best prospect after posting the world's fifth-fastest time in winning the 1998 Asian Games in 2:21.47. Ichihashi, 23, was second in last year's World Championships at 2:27.02, and Yamaguchi had Japan's second-best time -- 2:22.12 -- in winning the Tokyo International last November.

 In women's swimming, backstrokers Mai Nakamura and Noriko Inada are ranked in the top five in the world, and Nakamura has the fastest time this year over 100 meters at 1:00.78. Mika Nakao and Tomoko Hagiwara are among the world's best in the 200.

 Though Japan's once-mighty gymnasts were one of the country's biggest disappointments in Atlanta, they appear ready for a comeback led by Naoya Tsukahara, whose father is gymnast Mitsuo Tsukahara of Munich fame. The trampoline will make its debut in Sydney as an official Olympic event, and Daisuke Nakata is reportedly the only man capable of a quadruple somersault with a half-twist.

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