Japanese gymnasts want to make country proud

TOKYO -- The 2011 World Gymnastics Championships in Tokyo were scripted to be the home country's grand re-emergence as a powerhouse gymnastics nation, recapturing the spirit of the 1970s, when the Japanese men's team was so technically superior it was considered almost unbeatable.

Japan, led by two-time world all-around champion Kohei Uchimura, is favored to win the men's team title, and Uchimura, whom many believe is the greatest male gymnast of all time, will attempt to become the first man to win three consecutive world all-around titles. The Japanese women aren't at the same level as the men, but their star, Koko Tsurumi, was ranked third best in the world in 2009, and is a potential medalist on bars.

Victory this week would mean more than gold medals and worldwide acclaim for the Japanese teams and their federation, which fought hard to keep the worlds in Tokyo after the devastating Tohoku earthquake on March 11. The 9.0-magnitude quake, one of the five strongest earthquakes on record, triggered a tsunami that ravaged cities in northern Japan and a partial meltdown of multiple reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images)

Kohei Uchimura is Japan's best gymnast ever, and he could win a third consecutive world all-around title in Tokyo.

Fukushima shook the world's confidence that Tokyo was a safe place to travel, much less a safe place to send potential Olympians. With numerous reports about the level of radiation in Tokyo, the International Skating Union postponed the World Figure Skating Championships, which had been scheduled to take place in Tokyo at the end of March. As fears persisted, several countries announced they were hesitant to send athletes to Japan, and the championships were moved to Moscow.

The World Gymnastics Championships seemed headed for the same fate. When Morinari Watanabe, president of the Tokyo Organizing Committee, traveled to Berlin in April to attend the European Championships, he was not allowed to board a bus with the athletes because people were afraid of being irradiated, he said.

"If it had been just buildings damaged by the earthquake, they could have been rebuilt," Hidenori Futagi, president of the Japan Gymnastic Association, said this week through an interpreter. "But because it concerned radioactivity, people associate it with the horrible disaster many years ago at Chernobyl. They had a fear of radioactivity. Those who were in Japan were not worried about it. However, it was difficult to persuade people outside the country to understand."

Saving the Tokyo worlds became a matter of international diplomacy, especially after Moscow expressed interest in hosting the gymnastics event as well. During the next two months, Futagi traveled around the world, visiting several gymnastics federations in their home countries before arriving in San Jose, Calif., at the end of May for the International Gymnastics Federation's executive council meeting. The council voted to keep worlds in Tokyo.

Gymnasts, who began arriving in Tokyo for pre-worlds training last month, said they felt no concern whatsoever about radiation. The Netherlands' Epke Zonderland, one of the world's best on the high bar and parallel bars, said he was more afraid worlds would be canceled than he was about being less than 300 miles from Fukushima. "We train all year -- our whole lives -- for gymnastics," Zonderland said, "and if there's a world championships, we go. No doubt."

Germany's Fabian Hambuechen, whose father trained in Japan in the 1970s during that golden age of Japanese gymnastics, has visited Japan a dozen times during the past decade for training camps and competitions. None was more high profile than his training stint this spring, when he videotaped himself walking around Tokyo and practicing with the Japanese men's team.

Only one gymnast -- Hungary's Tunde Csillag, a floor finalist at the 2011 European Championships -- is known to have refused to travel to Tokyo. She was suspended from the Hungarian team for a year as a result, and told Hungary's Sport Geza in June, "I'm following the situation in Japan and the news coming out of the country and I decided with my family -- not the influence of the coaches -- that I do not want to travel to Japan. I expected that my decision will have consequences, but despite the disciplinary measures against me, I feel that my decision was right."

The rest of the team has not been concerned, said Austin Sheppard, who has dual citizenship with the United States and Hungary and is competing at her first world championships. "I don't think we had hesitation at all," Sheppard said. "We want to go to the Olympics."

The Japanese teams are aware that representing their country in Tokyo this week carries added significance; that they are also a symbol of the Japanese people standing strong in the face of adversity.

"I want to come up with a strong performance to encourage the people in Japan," said Rie Tanaka, who has become somewhat famous in the Japanese media after winning the Longines Prize for Elegance -- given to the gymnast who displays great showmanship and elegance -- at last year's worlds.

The organizing committee has paid for 300 schoolchildren from Miyagi, Fukushima, and Iwate prefectures -- all among the hardest hit by the disaster -- to travel to Tokyo with their families to watch this weekend's event finals competition. They will be able to watch proudly from the stands as Uchimura performs in five events in men's finals, and Tsurumi and Asuka Teramoto compete for gold on uneven bars in the women's final.

Uchimura, who had a surprise fall on vault during the preliminary competition, considered not performing on floor exercise afterward in order to protect his slightly injured left leg. When asked why he opted to continue, Uchimura touched the patch on his shirt, an emblem with the word "Tohoku" and a pink heart that all gymnasts have sewn onto their competition apparel, and said simply, "I wanted to do my best performance."

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