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Olympians Raise Medals, Spirits of Japanese

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 15, 1998; Page A1

 Masahiko Harada's bronze was especially sweet for many people here because it was an inspiring comeback story. (Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP)
NAGANO, Feb. 15 — Japanese ski jumper Kazuyoshi Funaki bent down to accept his gold medal, then straightened up, clenched his fists and let out a long, happy scream that echoed in millions of Japanese hearts.

For thousands of his cheering countrymen jammed into Nagano's Central Square for tonight's medal ceremony, and for people all over a country gloomy from a prolonged economic recession, Funaki's holler was a rare joyful noise, a welcome relief from daily doses of depressing news.

The crowd was screaming out the names of its athletes, but the most common cry from the 4,000 people packed into the square tonight was "Arigatoo! Arigatoo!" — thank-yous from a nation grateful for its athletes' surprising success at these Olympics.

"I feel fire in my heart; I was almost crying," said Yuji Harayama, 34, who stood in the crowd tonight, waving a flag and screaming. "These last few months have been so uncertain and gloomy, but that's all been wiped away."

Host nation Japan won three medals today, making these Winter Games the most successful in history for Japan — and there are still seven days of competition. Japan has won seven medals here, including three golds. In the medal count, Japan trails winter sports powerhouses Russia, Germany, Norway and Canada and has exceeded the six medals won by the United States.

The medal total ties Japan's take at the 1992 Albertville Games, but it is the first time Japan has won three gold medals in a single Olympics. Japan had won a total of three gold medals in all previous Winter Games.

Coming into the Olympics, Japan was praying the Games would provide a shot of happy news to lift spirits here. An economic downturn has caused a record number of corporate bankruptcies, people are losing jobs, the government is dogged by corruption scandals, and the country is suffering from a national malaise.

Everyone here remembers Japan's sweep of the ski jumping medals the last time it hosted the Olympics, the 1972 Games in Sapporo. As the host again, Japan was hoping for that same kind of legend-making performance, and its ski jumpers, skaters and skiers have responded on cue.

Japan's first few medals largely were overshadowed by embarrassment and apprehension over the horrible weather that has plagued the Games. Instead of enjoying the moment, the Japanese press has been filled with second-guessing about whether Nagano, the southernmost city to host the Games, should have been selected in the first place.

But that mood changed with today's medal blitz. This morning, Funaki won the men's 120-meter ski jump — adding to the silver he won earlier in the 90-meter jump — and teammate Masahiko Harada won the bronze to the delirious cheering of 35,000 mainly Japanese fans who watched in the snow. This afternoon, speedskater Hiroyasu Shimizu picked up his second medal of the Games, a bronze in the men's 1,000-meter race to go with his gold in the 500 meters, turning the crowd at Nagano's M-Wave skating oval into a screaming sea of waving flags and flashing cameras.

Harada's medal was especially sweet for many people here because it was an inspiring comeback story. Harada was favored heavily to win a medal in the 90-meter jump, but he flubbed his last jump and finished fifth. It was the same fate he suffered in the 1994 Lillehammer Games, when his poor final jump cost Japan the team jumping gold medal. Harada's third-place today was a sweet ending to a sad story — and the Japanese love happy endings.

"These athletes make this world brighter; they have changed people's moods," said Shoichi Asahara, 69, who went to the ski jumping this morning, rode a train to Nagano for the speedskating this afternoon and then stood in the cold for tonight's medal ceremony.

Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto today joined in the cheering for Japan's medalists. "Unbelievable," he said in Tokyo, praising Funaki for "perfect form" and Harada for showing good sportsmanship in accepting his teammate's superior performance. Earlier in the week, Hashimoto made congratulatory phone calls to the other medalists.

The winners also have been fresh new faces for Japan, marking an important generational shift in this nation. Funaki, 22, has stylish, pointy sideburns and high, thin eyebrows that look plucked. Tae Satoya, 21, who won the gold medal in women's mogul skiing, was born four years after the Sapporo Olympics. She is Japan's first female gold medalist at the Winter Games, but she looks more at home in Tokyo's trendy neighborhoods than pouring tea at some giant corporation — the career path of many of her contemporaries.

These athletes are the face of Japan's hip youth, a generation of iconoclasts who are challenging the notions of conformity and group behavior advocated by their parents and grandparents. Japan's bleached-and-pierced snowboarders are as cutting-edge as any from America, and young athletes such as Funaki, Satoya and others are inspiring their peers.

"It makes me feel like I must be tough in my own life," said Kazuyuki Nakajima, 22, who joined the crowd tonight. "My dream is to become an architect, and this gives me courage to fight for my goal."

When Funaki and Harada entered Central Square tonight, crowds crammed close to the stage inside, and thousands more filling the streets outside howled like teenagers at a rock concert. They waved flags, jumped and shouted "Fu-na-ki!' and "Ha-ra-da!" and "Nip-pon!" as the jumpers walked along a raised walkway lined with lights to the medal stage.

The screaming didn't stop as Funaki and Harada received their medals and bouquets of flowers. Then the crowd sang along as the Japanese flag was raised and the national anthem played. Funaki's eyes welled up with tears as he listened. Then he ran back down the walkway, jumped in the air and tossed his bouquet to the adoring crowd as fireworks exploded.

Funaki's newest possession is Japan's 99th Olympic gold medal in all Games. If number 100 doesn't come tomorrow, many people will be looking to Funaki and Harada to provide it in the team ski jumping competition Tuesday morning.

"Today," said Asahara, a retired teacher, "I felt the beauty of Funaki."

Special correspondent Shigehiko Togo contributed to this story.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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