The Japanese Program is Absolute Madness – An Old School Gymnastics Blog
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The Japanese Program is Absolute Madness – An Old School Gymnastics Blog

I’m in awe over Japan’s performances during 2022 World Championships. But it was not the success Japan had that has made their results so shocking, but who they did it with. Or rather, who they did without. Japan achieved success in all stages of competition at the 2022 World Championships. From the qualifications stage to Team Finals, and the strong scores carried into the individual events. But this wasn’t supposed to be a year where Japan was going to run the table.

It was supposed to be a rebuilding year, where Japan entered 2022 at a crossroads. Having to do without any of its big names from the previous decade and wondering where the program stood in the hierarchy of women’s gymnastics. Japan was in uncharted territory having lost all of its core team members from years prior and having to rely on a group of unproven and untested gymnasts to take their place.

It is almost unheard of to find a case where a single program has been so badly gutted as what occurred with Japan in the past year. But rather than falter in this environment, or even maintain the status quo, Japan thrived in spite of all that it has lost. One notable example is what occurred on balance beam. At the 2021 World Championships Urara Ashikawa won a gold medal on beam, becoming only the third Japanese gymnast ever to win a gold medal in women’s gymnastics.

At only 19 years old Urara Ashikawa is young and has a bright future with the program. She was unanimously considered Japan’s safest bet for a future qualifier in Event Finals. But Ashikawa wouldn’t compete at the 2022 World Championships. The reason being, Japan emphasizes a selection process where team lineups are decided based exclusively on results and personal scores. This produces a final result where a team is selected without any debate or discussion, but rather lets the numbers fall where they may.

The system is notorious for being rigid and inflexible. Prone to creating results where top gymnasts don’t make the team because they didn’t meet the agreed upon criteria. Even if there is widespread agreement within the gymnastics community that this is the best gymnast for the Japanese team. It is impossible to write a pre-determined selection criteria that accounts for every situation, and often times a scenario occurs where a top gymnast falls through the holes in the criteria.

Other programs have used similar formats in the past. The United States found controversy with their own version of this system all the way back in 1984 when Dianne Durham was left off the Olympic team despite being statistically the most successful American in domestic competition throughout the entire 1981-1984 Olympic quad. Similar examples have caused countries to long ago abandon their results-based selection models. Pivoting to systems featuring human input, allowing flexibility, and not confined by rigidness.

Japan was the exception to this trend and for years gymnastics fans have bemoaned the vulnerabilities of its selection model. History repeated itself in the Summer of 2022 when Urara Ashikawa, the #1 ranked gymnast in the world on balance beam, failed to make the Japanese team. What happens to a country who lost its most important gymnast on balance beam?

Japan has the greatest showing of any country on balance beam in the opening round of competition at the 2022 World Championships.

You read that correctly. Japan loses its most important contributor on balance beam and the program still found a way to not only improve upon its previous ranking, but have the highest team score on balance beam. Japanese gymnasts finished 3rd (Shoko Miyata), 5th (Hazuki Watanabe), and 7th (Ayaka Sakaguchi) on beam during qualifications.

Not only did Japan leave one of their top beam workers off their starting lineup (Ashikawa), Japan also had the silver medalist on balance beam at the 2022 Asian Championships and she missed the World Championships because of an injury (Kasahara Arisa). In a weird twist of irony, the injury to Arisa allowed Ashikawa to attend the 2022 World Championships. Arisa’s absence promoted Urara Ashikawa from 2nd (non-traveling) alternate to 1st alternate.

The idea that Japanese beam is this good even without the reigning gold medalist at the World Championships, or a silver medalist from the Asia Championships is absurd. It doesn’t make sense that a country could have such a vast talent pool of reserve athletes who can step up to the plate and plug a hole in the team lineup when called upon. But that is what Japan has been doing on every apparatus for the past year.

At the end of 2021 the World Championships were held and it was at this competition that Mai Murakami announced her retirement. Murakami is to the modern era of Japanese women’s gymnastics what Nadia Comaneci was to 1970s Romanian gymnastics. It was Murakami who symbolized Japan’s recent rise as a leading program on the women’s side of the sport. Mai was by far the most successful Japanese gymnast of the last fifty years. In some ways she remains the only gymnast from her program to replicate the type of success Japan had not experienced since the 1960s. Murakami is the only gymnast in Japanese history to win multiple gold medals.

Murakami was a legend, a trailblazer, and mainstay of Japanese women’s gymnastics. She not only won medals, but was a program contributor for nearly a decade. The only thing harder to do than replace a legend is to replace one who you haven’t gone without in nearly a decade and was winning gold medals until the very end of her career.

But while Murakami was able to leave on her own terms, another Japanese gymnast was cruelly denied that same opportunity. At the very same World Championships that Murakami was slated to retire, Hitomi Hatakeda finished 4th in the All-Around during qualifications.

At the time Hitomi had just turned 21 years old and she had been a core member of the Japanese program since 2018. Hitomi Hatakeda would compete in three consecutive World Championships while also competing at the 2021 Olympics. Hitomi’s 4th place qualifying placement was a beacon of hope for Japan. While the program was saying farewell to Murakami, a younger gymnast had emerged who could bring to the table the same All-Around results that made Mai so valuable to the Japanese program.

But shortly before the All-Around was due to start Hitomi suffered a neck injury during a practice session. The accident sent the gymnastics community into a panic as Hitomi was rushed to the hospital and it was realized she had suffered some form of spinal damage to her neck. The injury was serious, but also miraculous. Hitomi walked out of the hospital one week later and avoided the nightmare scenario that the sport had witnessed too many times before.

Even though it looked like Hitomi had been spared the worst, the lingering effects of her injury was enough to end Hatakeda’s career and she never competed again. The 2021 World Championships would result in the loss of both Mai Murakami and Hitomi Hatakeda, Japan’s two most valuable All-Arounders.

In the first half of 2022 the loses continued to pile up for Japan. First came the retirement of Asuka Teramoto, a gymnast who had been a regular member of the Japanese lineup going all the way back to 2011. Not long afterwards, Aiko Sugihara, a core member of the Japanese lineup since 2015 announced she would be “taking a break from competition” and would do so indefinitely in a social post that had many similarities to a retirement announcement. But Sugihara avoiding describing her situation as a retirement.

In a period of just eight months, Japan lost its four most critical gymnasts. The quartet accounted for Japan’s two leading All-Arounders and its three most tenured veterans.

Since the year 2000 the Americans with the most appearances at the Olympics and World Championships were Simone Biles (7), Alicia Sacramone (6), and Aly Raisman (5).

But in just the past year alone Japan lost gymnasts with the following number of appearances: Asuka Teramoto (9), Mai Murakami (8), and Aiko Sugihara (6).

From late 2021 to mid-2022 Japan lost three gymnasts who accounted for a staggering 23 appearances. For refence, during the 2017-2021 Tokyo Olympic cycle each program (Japan included) could only award a maximum of 20 spots throughout four years of competition. From a mathematical point of view, these three gymnasts had more competition experience than an entire national team could achieve in four years of competition. In the Japanese program, the trio of Asuka, Mai, and Aiko accounted for 47% of all team spots from 2015-2021.

By every conceivable metric Japan had been gutted with no gymnasts from the previous era to be carried forward for the 2022 World Championships. There would be no returning Olympians from the year prior, the program lost its two best All-Arounders, it would be without its two gold medalists from Event Finals at the 2021 World Championships, and lost all of its veteran gymnasts whose experience was not measured in years, but entire Olympic quads.

It is a testament to Japan’s great strength that under these circumstance Japan didn’t just avoid disaster, but somehow managed to thrive under these conditions. It goes without saying that Japan would need an all “rookie” team for 2022. Sending five gymnasts to the 2022 World Championships and not one of them had previously competed at an Olympics or World Championships.

But the team of Ayaka Sakaguchi, Chiharu Yamada, Shoko Miyata, Hazuki Watanabe, and Kokoro Fukasawa held firm. In team qualifications the 2022 Japanese team finished in 5th place, the same ranking Japan had achieved in Team Finals at the 2021 Olympics. The only difference was the gymnasts who are now representing Japan. Gymnasts who didn’t have the pedigree of gold medals, multiple Olympic appearances, or high All-Around placements. Yet they still managed to perform exactly as well as the big names they were replacing.

If Japan losing Urara Ashikawa and still managing to have the best beam performance of any program was madness, it was merely Japan’s first act. Japan’s second act of madness was that despite losing all their core gymnasts from 2021, Japan actually managed to produce the exact same ranking in its return to high level competition in 2022 during the qualifying round. But Japan’s third act of madness is that they almost won their first medal since 1966 under these circumstances.

Entering the third and final rotation of Team Finals Japan lead Canada 121.132 points to 120.931 points. Giving Japan a small .201 point lead. But Japan had a glimmer of hope. Canada would be finishing their last rotation on balance beam. During Team Finals the beam had been causing problems for more gymnasts than any other apparatus. On beam gymnasts were averaging .650 fewer points per routine with 33% of competitors recording a fall on this one apparatus alone.

It would later be revealed that there had been an equipment malfunction with rainwater from the roof had created a continuous drip on beam while the competition was being held. The revelation of this specific detail will generate long lasting discussion as to whether it can be attributed to the high volume of falls observed during Team Finals at the 2022 World Championships.

While Canada was finishing on the dreaded balance beam, Japan would finish on the uneven bars. Each country would complete three routines, and all three routines would count. For Japan, Chiharu Yamada went lights out scoring a 13.666 while her Canadian counterpart scored a relatively low 12.233 (Emma Spence). By this point all the stars were now aligning in Japan’s favor. Only two routines were left and Japan’s new lead of 1.634 gave the program a considerable safety net.

But on the second set of routines things would start to fall apart. On bars Hazuki Watanabe produced a score of 12.766 which was one of the lowest scores of the day on that apparatus. At the exact same time Canada’s Sydney Turner went lights out on the balance beam with a 13.566 that was one of the higher scores on beam from the day. These two developments cut Japan’s lead in half, to .834 as the competition for bronze turned towards the very last routine of the very last rotation.

Japan still had a relatively comfortable lead, but Canada’s last gymnast (Ellie Black) wasn’t just Canada’s best beam worker, she had more experience than all four of her teammates combined and was the unquestioned leader of the team. In each of the three previous rotations Ellie Black had put up the highest score for Team Canada. Ellie Black was Canada’s top scorer, most experienced gymnast, and was competing on her very best event.

Ellie Black rose to the occasion and scored a 13.833 which was the second highest score of day on beam. For Japan, their final gymnast was Kokoro Fukasawa who needed to score exactly 13.000 points or more on the uneven bars to secure a bronze medal for Canada. The minimum score of 13.000 was so easily obtainable that 71% of gymnasts who performed on uneven bars during Team Finals at the 2022 World Championships had obtained it.

But in heartbreaking fashion Kokoro Fukasawa came to a dead hang on her bars routine and after attempting to fight through it, eventually had to abandon her swing and take a fall. By this point disaster had struck and it was clear Japan’s medal prospects were gone. But like any good gymnast possessing character and integrity Kokoro still remounted the apparatus and attempted to finish her routine, only to experience the same difficulty as before with yet another dead hang. The score was a 9.400 which was the lowest score of the entire competition across all four events during 2022 Team Finals.

Japan and Canada had battled each other in a duel between two underdog success stories. Japan was looking to win its first medal in the Team Finals since 1966, while Canada had never in its history won a medal on this event entering 2022. The ten total gymnasts competing for Japan and Canada (five each) had nine rookies between them who had never before competed in a World Championships or Olympics. Gymnastics fans would have been engulfed in happiness for either program had they won, but someone had to lose.

The disastrous 9.400 score on beam demoted Japan to 7th place out of eight total teams in Team Finals. That #7 ranking will be what future fans read in the official record book as the years pass. But what the record book does not show is that until the final moments, Japan had been a ferocious competitor and nearly won a bronze medal. That that this underdog team full of rookies who were competing in the absence of so many stars found themselves firmly in medal-winning position. Not as the competition was in its early stages or midway point, but as the final routines were being completed. The only way Japan would not get a medal is if everything that could go wrong, went wrong.

Unfortunately for Japan, everything did.

But there were still two stages of competition left and more medals to be won. In the All-Around Shoko Miyata finished in 8th place. While Shoko’s performance in the All-Around did not result in a medal, she became only the 6th Japanese gymnast ever to record a top-8 finish in All-Around Finals. Once more this inexperienced and unproven Japanese team devoid of big names managed to produce results as good as any Japanese team that had previously come before them. Even after losing its two most important All-Arounders of the past four years, another Japanese gymnast emerged who could replace what Japan had lost.

Shoko Miyata would emerge as the big breakout star of the 2022 World Championships. Shoko entered the 2022 World Championships as a gymnast few were talking about beforehand. She left as the new face of her national program and is now a widely recognizable name amongst gymnastics fans. Shoko Miyata’s reputation was well deserved as she had made history for Japan. Miyata competed in three different apparatus finals during the 2022 World Championships and previously no Japanese gymnast had ever done this in a single competition.

Despite its reputation as a mid-level to low-level in women’s gymnastics, Japan is actually the most successful country in the sport from outside the Big Four and the Cold War era Eastern Bloc powerhouses. But despite all of its previous success including legends like Keiko Ikeda, Koko Tsurumi, and Mai Murakami, none of them had ever competed in three different Event Finals over the course of a single competition as Shoko Miyata had done.

But Shoko Miyata wasn’t the only Japanese gymnast achieving success in the individual events. It was Hazuki Watanabe who ultimately won the gold medal on balance beam while Shoko Miyata joined her on the medal podium in 3rd place. The only other occasions Japan won multiple medals in Event Finals was the 2021 World Championships and before that, the 1966 World Championships.

But in 2021 Japan was competing with the assistance of homefield advantage and against a competitive field where many of the best gymnasts were absent due to Covid-19. In many ways, what Japan accomplished in 2022 was significantly more difficult than what it had achieved in 2021. This in regards to two teams that were experiencing success not seen by the Japanese program since 1966.

The 2022 Japanese team finished in the top-8 of an individual event on five different occasions. In Japanese history this has only ever happened twice previously. The World Championships in 2017 and before that the 1966 World Championships. By every statistical metric, the 2022 Japanese team was one of the most groundbreaking teams Japan has ever had.

The irony of the situation is Japan entered this competition in a cloud of controversy as Urara Ashikawa, the 2021 gold medalist on beam at the World Championships was left off the team. Only for Japan to silence that controversy when Hazuki Watanabe also won gold on beam. In doing so, Japan became the first country since Romania in the 1980s to win back-to-back gold medals on beam at the World Championships with two different gymnasts (Aurelia Dobre and Daniela Silivas).

Shoko Miyata’s bronze medal on beam at the 2022 World Championships made her the fourth Japanese gymnast to win a medal on beam in this same two-year window. Somehow, Japan’s depleted and controversial balance beam lineup in 2022 resulted in two medals on that very same event. In both 2021 and 2022, Japan won a gold and bronze medal on beam at the World Championships. The pair of identical results occurred while using a completely different team of gymnasts.

The fascinating aspect of this story is that Japan didn’t have success in one stage of competition. Japan came out with guns blazing in all stages of the competition. Japan had strong results in Team Qualifications and Team Finals. The Japanese women performed well in the individual events and the team events. The program achieve success in every stage of competition from qualifications, to the team event, All-Around, and Event Finals. Every which way Japan found a way to maintain the same threshold of success the program had previously enjoyed.

This from a team where success wasn’t supposed to be found, from a program that hadn’t just lost everything, but was supposed to suffer one of the greatest falls from grace any program had ever experienced. Japan had lost all of its star gymnasts, its experienced veterans, its Olympians, and its medalists. All of its top medal contenders were either gone or sidelined, and in their place came a team full of inexperienced rookies of modest backgrounds, who don’t have the expectations of replacing the icons of years prior.

Entering the 2022 World Championships Japan was enshrouded in uncertainty where the biggest question was not what medals Japan could win, but how far would the program fall? Instead, a team that seemed to have lost everything attended the 2022 World Championships and put up a historic performance as if the program had lost nothing. There is only one way to describe it. Madness.

Absolute Madness

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