After a loss in Rio, the Japanese modern pentathlete hopes to bounce back at Tokyo 2020
Having made his mark after earning a bronze medal at the 2014 Asian Games, Japanese modern pentathlete IWAMOTO Shohei had high hopes for the Olympic Games Rio 2016. However, to his disappointment, he finished 29th.
Iwamoto can only explain his defeat by saying: "There's an invisible force which certainly exist at the Olympic Games."
No matter how prepared an athlete is, Iwamoto believes luck and other 'unexplainable' factors come into play to determine victory and defeat in the Games.
Four years after that heartbreaking loss in Rio, the 31-year-old is now eyeing to compete and redeem himself at Tokyo 2020, his home Olympics.
"With another year to prepare, I can still make a lot of improvements.”
He also looks at the postponement of the Olympic Games in a positive light.
“Now that I know when the Games will be held, I can calculate backwards to figure out what I should be doing.
The “King of sports”
Among the 33 Olympic sports to be featured at the Tokyo 2020 Games, modern pentathlon is known as the "king of sports". It was Baron de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games, who first proposed a competition similar to the pentathlon held at the ancient Olympic Games. In modern pentathlon, athletes test their all-round sporting prowess in fencing, swimming, horse riding, and the laser-run, which combines pistol shooting and cross country running. The competition is so gruelling that some athletes collapse after finishing the laser-run, the final event of the sport.
Iwamoto had been an enthusiastic swimmer in his native Kagoshima Prefecture, when he was scouted by the Physical Training School, Japan Self- Defense Forces (JSDF). In April 2008, he joined the JSDF, received group training, and was selected to take part in the modern pentathlon. In 2012, he achieved victory for the first time at the Japan National Championships before winning three consecutive times, confirming his status as a promising pentathlete.
He was eventually included in Japan’s Olympic team for the Rio 2016 Games. However, the outcome at Rio was something he hadn't wished for. He had put too much pressure on himself to live up to other people's expectations.
“I can usually enjoy competitions instead of being overwhelmed by the atmosphere, but as it was my first Olympic Games, the atmosphere got the better of me and to be honest and I couldn’t move my body in ways I wanted to,” he explained.
2016 Getty images
Not quitting for Tokyo 2020
After returning to Japan, he felt it was a long way to the next Olympic Games and quitting the sport indeed crossed his mind. But at the same time, whilst he was in Rio, he learned that the next Olympic Games would be in Tokyo.
“I was lucky to have been able to experience the Games ahead of Tokyo 2020. I was convinced that my second Games would be different from my first,” he said.
People around him also persuaded him to continue. In the end, he decided to remain as a pentathlete, because deep down he "had an aspiration to be a part of the Olympic Games held in my home country”.
At the UIPM Pentathlon World Cup II held in March 2018, he finished sixth, a record high final position for any Japanese male pentathlete. Then in November 2019, he came in seventh at the Asia/Oceania Championships, the highest finish among Japanese competitors, which led to his spot at the Tokyo 2020 Games.
“I felt relieved and overjoyed to be able to compete at the Olympic Games again. I am now stronger-minded with a lot of energy to fight,” he said.
Dealing with the postponement
He was training for the Games, when he learned that in March 2020 that it would be postponed to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Iwamoto was immensely disappointed upon hearing the news, as he had, in fact, set his mind on retiring after the Tokyo 2020 Games. During the state of emergency period in Japan, he felt frustrated not being able to train sufficiently during this period.
He also felt he had lost his sense of purpose for training but it was his family and friends who helped him change his mind.
“My family especially means a lot to me. In a year from now, my children will be older and remember the Games more clearly. My parents told me that they are looking forward to the event, which has also motivated me to push forward. As I listened to my family and friends, I became more determined to pursue my one and only goal,” he said.
Now, Iwamoto is again on his way towards the goal of winning a medal at the Olympic Games. He took advantage of the lockdown period to face his issues head-on and clarify what needs to be done before the event.
“I still have a lot of work to do in fencing, horse riding and shooting, which require technical skills. In particular, I cannot afford to lose in fencing. I used to have a bad habit that needed to be fixed and I was able to take the time to fix a few things while no competitions were being held. As for swimming and running, which require physical skills, I am hoping to lay the foundations and build on them,” he explained.
Enjoying the sport
Iwamoto has been a pentathlete for over a decade now. Having experienced a host of competitions in Japan and overseas, he now exudes the poise and demeanour of a veteran pentathlete.
“When I first took up the sport, I hadn’t imagined myself competing at the Olympic Games, but as time went by, I learned how to tackle the sport and what training I needed to become better,” he recalled.
He feels especially passionate about the laser-run event, which comes at the end of the competition.
“Apart from swimming, I started all events from scratch when I took up pentathlon, but I was especially good at shooting, right from the start,” he stated. “A competitor’s performance in shooting can change their position and create time differences, so I will be aiming for the middle of the target to give myself an advantage over my fellow competitors.”
Iwamoto highlights the appeal of the sport, explaining: “Pentathlon is a sport that can be enjoyed five times as much as other sports, both by the competitors and the spectators. Also, the beauty of pentathlon is that you never know until the very end who will win.”
Looking back at the Rio 2016 Games, Iwamoto recalls how he was plagued by his inner demons.
“[They] live in my own mind. The real key lies in how well I can shake them off. For this, I essentially need to gain self-confidence through practice and to achieve good results ahead of the Olympic Games,” he explained.
Ahead of his second Games, he attributes special importance to enjoying the sport.
“I have the notion that whoever enjoys the sport most will win the competition. In other words, if I win, it will mean I enjoyed the competition the most,” he said.
Will he be able to overcome them and achieve his goal? Success all depends on whether he can enjoy the modern pentathlon at the Olympic Games more than any of his rivals.