Olympic athletes are often true hometown heroes who dream of returning to where it all started with gold around their neck. For Japanese cyclist Kazunari Watanabe, that dream may never become a reality — not because the 28-year-old is a longshot to reach the podium in London, but because he can’t go home.
Watanabe’s hometown of Futaba remains inaccessible following the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that devastated Japan last March. Debris scattered from the neighboring Fukushima nuclear plant during the disaster has prompted the Japanese government to issue an exclusion order that could keep people from returning to Futaba for at least another 10 years.
As floating remains from the aftermath of the tsunami continue to wash up on American beaches, we are reminded of the catastrophic event that Watanabe wants nobody to forget.
Watanabe discussed his role beyond his sport — a relatively new cycling competition called keirin — in an interview with Reuters:
“The consequences from the devastation will continue for many more years, and it will be my life work to keep attention on the issue,” said Watanabe, who missed the medal platform at the Beijing Olympics but still managed sixth in the team sprint and was feted by his home town all the same.
“I want to be power for the people in Futaba and Fukushima at this Olympics and will aim for the gold medal.
“I want to help them and bring them some light as an athlete.”
Kazunari Watanabe will be representing Japan in the men’s keirin, a sport introduced to the summer Olympics in 2000 behind pressure from the Japanese. The event is an eight-lap race in which competitors follow behind a pace-setting motor bike for the first five and a half laps before sprinting the final 600 meters.
Watanabe, who was training for the world championships in Tokyo last March when the 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of northern Japan. Then 19, Watanabe lost his focus and love for keirin, but his family and friends urged him back onto his bike.
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