Playback Rio: Japan women’s table tennis team recover after heart-breaking loss to clinch bronze

Mima Ito, Kasumi Ishikawa and Ai Fukuhara of Japan celebrate winning the Women's Team Bronze Medal match against Singapore at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mima Ito, Kasumi Ishikawa and Ai Fukuhara of Japan celebrate winning the Women's Team Bronze Medal match against Singapore at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Japan won a total of 41 medals (12 gold, 8 silver, and 21 bronze) at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, but what thoughts crossed the minds of Japanese athletes as they appeared on the biggest stage of them all? In this series, we look back at the incredible events from Brazil that are still fresh in the collective memory of the next host country.

Japan win Women's Table Tennis Team bronze
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Result for table tennis women’s team bronze medal match

Japan 3 - 1 Singapore

(FUKUHARA Ai 2 - 3 YU Mengyu)
(ISHIKAWA Kasumi 3 - 0 FENG Tianwei)
(FUKUHARA Ai, ITO Mima 3 - 1 YU Mengyu, ZHOU Yihan)
(ITO Mima 3 - 0 FENG Tianwei)

The overriding aim of Japan’s women’s table tennis team at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 was to triumph over the powerful Chinese team.

To top the world, Japan needed to overcome the country justifiably known as the ‘land of table tennis’. Having been defeated by People's Republic of China in the finals at London 2012 and the 2016 World Table Tennis Championships, Japan was determined to fulfil its long-held dream of conquering the table tennis superpower at the Rio 2016 Games, only to face harsh reality.

Far from defeating People's Republic of China, Japan did not reach the final where the behemoth awaited, as the team lost to Germany 2-3 in the semi-final after a four-hour match.

At the very least, the team then wanted to achieve its secondary goal of taking home a medal.

FUKUHARA Ai, ISHIKAWA Kasumi and ITO Mima, Japan’s national team members, roused themselves to shake off the disappointment of the semi-final loss. Although they had a day to rest before the bronze medal match, there were undeniable concerns that they could be experiencing physical fatigue as well as a feeling of emptiness after their defeat in the long and exhausting semi-final contest.

Whether Japan could gain back-to-back medals depended on how much they could recover from the damage inflicted in the semi-final.

Then came the contest for bronze, where Japan got off to a bad start. Fukuhara lost the first match, allowing her opponent to battle back after winning the first game. However, Ishikawa turned things around by winning straight games over Singaporean ace FENG Tianwei, who had defeated her in the singles bronze medal match at the London 2012 Games. The Japanese player had volunteered to face Feng, saying: “I wanted to show how much I’d grown over the past four years".

Mima Ito, Kasumi Ishikawa and Ai Fukuhara of Japan celebrate winning the Women's Team Bronze Medal match against Singapore at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mima Ito, Kasumi Ishikawa and Ai Fukuhara of Japan celebrate winning the Women's Team Bronze Medal match against Singapore at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
2016 Getty Images

Ishikawa’s victory set the team put the team on a roll. Fukuhara and Ito won the doubles match 3-1, putting Japan only one match away from clinching bronze. The fourth match was between Ito and Feng. Ito, the youngest in the team at 15, had been defeated in the first match of the semi-final, and was feeling responsible for having allowed the opponents to gain the momentum.

Determined to take her frustration out in the bronze medal match, she moved her opponent around with her signature high-speed rally and won straight games.

“This has been the hardest Olympics I’ve ever experienced,” said Fukuhara, revealing that endless tears flowed the moment the team clinched the bronze medal.

As the team’s oldest player at 27, she had vowed to herself: “Whether I win or lose, I won’t let it get to me. I won’t let myself cry.”

Despite her promise not to show her emotion, the relief she must have felt after achieving winning a medal must have been just too much for her.

Ishikawa had been an Olympic medallist hopeful as a singles player, but was unexpectedly defeated in her first match as a third seed. In the team event, however, she led the team by winning all her matches.

“For me, the bronze medal we won seemed much harder to come by than the silver medal we gained in London. I was pretty down after losing the first singles match, but it was that defeat that made me even more determined to redeem my loss in the team event,” she smiled.

“You just never know what will happen at the Olympics. I’ve realised just how hard it is to win an Olympic medal,” Ito said.

The three teammates, each with their own personal struggle, supported one another and pulled through together. Each passing match seemed to further consolidate their solidarity as a team. And it was their teamwork that enabled them to shrug off the disappointment of their defeat in the semi-final and claim the bronze medal.

Although the Japanese team fell short of overcoming People's Republic of China, the medal they clinched amidst high expectations made it every bit as valuable as the silver medal it earned in London.