CANOE NAGANO '98 ISP DIRECTORY
Tuesday, February 17, 1998
Okabe, Harada post record jumps
HAKUBA, Japan (AP) -- Had the nightmare returned? Gold medal on the line, and Masahiko Harada flops again?
Not this time. He had a second chance and he grabbed it, uncorking a record-breaking jump and helping Japan to a historic first.
Then the 29-year-old Harada unleashed a roar that might have been heard all the way to his native island of Hokkaido to the north.
"I did it! I did it!" he exclaimed, before breaking down in tears.
Harada had his redemption and Japan had its gold medal in the team large hill event today, before a horn-blowing, flag-waving crowd of 50,000.
It would have been theirs four years ago in Lillehammer, except that Harada caved under pressure. With Japan in the lead and Harada last to jump, he needed to go a modest 105 meters. He landed only 97.5 and Germany edged Japan for the gold.
Today, Harada's first jump was a disaster, caused more by nature's cruel twists than his own shortcomings. Just as he was about to roar down the ramp, the wind changed and the snow picked up, slowing his velocity. Visibility so poor he could hardly see the bottom of the hill.
Harada took off as if he had lead in his pockets and landed with a thud -- at 79.5 meters.
At the end of the first series, Japan was fourth, behind Austria, Germany and Norway, and the 10-year dream of a gold medal seemed to be slipping away.
But Takanobu Okabe got Japan back into contention by soaring 137 meters, the longest jump in Olympic history.
Hiroya Saito had 124 to keep Japan in the battle.
Then came Harada.
"I was very much concerned that it would happen again," Harada said, referring to Lillehammer. "The only thing I had in mind was to jump as long as possible."
And he did -- another 137 meters to share the record with Okabe.
"I had a lot of difficulty in the first jump with the heavy snow, visibility and the slow speed," he said.
Harada was not the last jumper for Japan this time. The home nation secured the gold when Kazuyoshi Funaki calmly flew 125 meters, unspectacular in distance but nearly immaculate in style.
Funaki, whose coolness can make him seem almost arrogant at times, could readily identify with the great burden the more emotional Harada had carried on his shoulders in Lillehammer.
"Now I know how Harada felt in the last Olympics," said Funaki, 22. "I felt enormous pressure on my entire body, really. I was overwhelmed. But the result was the gold. It's great."
The four Japanese men then hugged and leaped in joy, mobbing Funaki, who later dived into a crowd of supporters.
The spectators at the bottom of the hill that's 30 yards taller that the Statue of Liberty's torch included the emperor's daughter, Princess Sayako.
Headlines six inches high on extra-edition newspapers carried only one word: "GOLD."
"All four of us worked together and got the gold. We helped each other. Everyone was the best," Harada said. "It wasn't me. It was all the teammates. It wasn't me.
It was the eighth medal of the Nagano Games for Japan -- its biggest haul ever at a Winter Games.
Funaki, the World Cup leader and the first Japanese to win the prestigious Four-Hill tour, gained his second gold of the Games, after winning the large hill individual event. He also had a silver in the normal hill in his first Olympics.
Harada got the gold to go with his bronze in the large hill.
In last week's normal hill competition, Harada had the biggest jump of the opening round, 91.5 meters, and, going last in Round 2, needed something like 88 and good style marks to win his first Olympic title. His 84.5 left him fifth.
The Japanese success was remarkable for a nation that was dead last when the team competition made its debut 10 years ago in Calgary.
"It was a very bitter experience for us," said Japan's head coach Manabu Ono.
"But we started gaining experience by sending our jumpers to competitions abroad regularly, and we started fostering national clubs and grooming talented jumpers," Ono said.
Japan also employs a Slovenian coach for technique and an Austrian coach for waxing. "This got our athletes used to other languages and cultures."
Ono said the team was concerned after the first round, when it was only fourth.
"We saw the difference was small, we were more worried about weather than about mental strength. Harada's first jump was beyond his control, I knew he would do well in the second if the conditions were fair," Ono said.
Ono said he had asked the jury to stop the competition as the snowfall picked up just before Harada's first jump, but the jury refused.
Japan's quartet all come from Hokkaido and live and train in Sapporo, where Japan had a sweep in the normal hill at the 1972 Games.
Japan totaled 933 points to win the title from Germany, which wound up with the silver this time with 897.4. Austria's final jumper, Andreas Widhoelzl, soared to 136.5 to capture the bronze ahead of Norway.