Olympics 2020 hosts Japan set bar high for Sochi
Japan's Sara Takanashi jumps in the women's World Cup ski jumping competition in Zao, Yamagata prefecture on January 19, 2014
Only 17-year-old Sara Takanashi, who has won eight of the season's nine World Cup women's ski-jumping events so far, is seen as Japan's sure-bet gold medal hope.
A few medals are expected in figure skating with two-time world champion Mao Asada raring to avenge her defeat to South Korea's Kim Yu-Na in Vancouver in 2010.
But Japan, once Asia's supreme sports power in both summer and winter Games, are targeting a record medal haul in Sochi -- topping their previous best of 10, including five gold medals at the 1998 edition they hosted in Nagano.
Japanese Olympic Committee president Tsunekazu Takeda pointed out that Japan captured a record 38 medals at the 2012 London Summer Olympics, a tally that helped Tokyo win the bid for the 2020 edition last September.
That in turn boosted a nation recovering from the massive 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster.
"We have realised through the Olympics the power of sport and the energy gained from sport," he told a send-off rally for the Japanese delegation to Sochi this week.
"I wish you to perform your best and send strong encouragement to the whole of Japan toward 2020."
Japan's chef de mission in Sochi, former Olympic speed skater and cyclist Seiko Hashimoto, did not given a detailed breakdown when she spoke about the ambitious target for Sochi.
"It is my duty to believe in the abilities of the athletes and build up a support system to help them go for their goals," said the 49-year-old senator.
But 10 medals is a big ask for Japan judging from their recent results -- one silver and one bronze at the 2002 Olympics, just one gold in 2006 and three silver and two bronze medals in 2010.
In Vancouver, South Korea led Asia's charge with 14 medals, six of them gold, and China followed with 11 medals including five gold ones.
In Sochi, even Takanashi faces a threat from rival Sarah Hendrickson, who has just resumed training five months after sustaining a knee injury.
The 19-year-old American beat Takanashi for gold at the world championships in February last year after the Japanese schoolgirl dominated the 2012-2013 World Cup season.
"It is raising my motivation to see an athlete I admire come back," Takanashi said of Hendrickson before their sport makes its Olympic debut in Sochi.
Japan's figure skating team is touted as the best ever.
Apart from Asada, 19-year-old Yuzuru Hanyu is tipped as a contender for the men's gold after beating Canada's three-time world champion Patrick Chan at the Grand Prix Final in December.
He has a teammate in Daisuke Takahashi, 27, who won the Olympic bronze and the world title in 2010.
Japan are also seen likely to pick up a few medals in speed skating, freestyle skiing, cross country skiing and snowboarding.
Ayumu Hirano, 15, is set to challenge US snowboarding superstar Shaun White in the halfpipe.
Hirano finished second to White, 27, in the superpipe at the 2013 X-Games.
Keiichiro Nagashima, 31, and Joji Kato, 28, are chasing better medals after grabbing the 500-metre long track silver and bronze in Vancouver.
Japan captain, and ski jumper, Noriaki Kasai, 41, became the oldest winner of a World Cup event at Tauplitz, Austria, on January 11, to earn the nickname "Legend Kasai."
He used to be dubbed "Kamikaze Kasai."
"I have never won a gold medal and want to become a real legend by winning one," said the veteran of six Winter Olympics, who won the team large-hill silver at Lillehammer 1994.
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