CANOE NAGANO '98 ISP DIRECTORY
Tuesday, February 17, 1998
Japanese crowd banzais team to victory
HAKUBA, Japan (AP) -- This was not your average ski jumping crowd.
Packed into a snow-covered stadium, 50,000 people waited to see history. When the moment came, when Japan's ski jumping team climbed onto the victory podium, cheers of "banzai" resounded through the Japan Alps.
"This is the moment that Japan has waited for," local guide Kaname Tanaka said as he waved a Japanese flag signed by dozens of Tokyo schoolchildren.
"We have waited so long."
For Japan, today's gold medal performance in the Olympic team ski jump competition was all the more sweet because of the way its team lost in Lillehammer four years ago, when Masahiko Harada blew a seemingly unbeatable lead with a terrible final jump.
Harada gave the crowd another scare today.
Hindered by heavy snow and unpredictable winds, he ruined Japan's lead going into the second round with a dismal 79.5 meter first leap.
As he came down for the second time, however, he hit 137 meters, tying teammate Takanobu Okabe for the longest jump in Olympic history. The crowd responded with a jubilant roar that continued through most of the final round.
When Kazuyoshi Funaki sealed Japan's victory with a final jump of 125 meters, cheers of "banzai" ripped through the stadium.
"From what I had read in the media, I came here thinking there wouldn't be so much interest in the Nagano Games," Harada said.
The fact that he was wrong was evident today. And for most of the fans, Harada was the draw.
"We all remember what happened in Lillehammer so clearly," said Toshitsugu Yamada, who came from Japan's northern island of Hokkaido to see the jump. "Today, they have erased that shame."
Japan's team has done far better than expected overall. Today's gold is its fourth so far, and its total medal count is its best ever.
But Japan's ski jumpers have long been among the best in the world, and hopes were high that they would repeat the medal sweep Japan pulled off when it hosted the 1972 Winter Games in Sapporo.
They nearly did -- taking the gold and bronze.
And with the team gold almost a sure thing today, Japan's fans filled the Hakuba ski jump venue with the kind of enthusiasm one might expect at a Super Bowl. Horns resounded through the air with each Japanese jumper. One huge banner in the stands said "Fly High Our Champions," another said simply "Fly."
"It's incomparable to anything I've seen," said ski jumper Mike Keuler of the United States. "I mean, just look around. These people really appreciate the sport."
Yushiro Yagi, head of the Japanese delegation to the games, had promised before the event began that Japan would win.
As he stood at the bottom of the jump with his gold medal-winning team, he was overcome with pride.
"This is the best," he said. "There is nothing better than this gold."