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.
“I was confident that we could defeat China this time, so I am really disappointed that we‘ve lost,” lamented a frustrated MIZUTANI Jun.
Japan faced People's Republic of China in the final after having guaranteed the nation their first medal in the men’s team table tennis. The People's Republic of China meanwhile was eyeing a third consecutive win.
Japan performed well but victory over the strong Chinese team eluded them, with the later emerging 3-1 victors. Still, Mizutani was greatly encouraged by the team’s growth.
“There’s no doubt that the day is nearing when we will beat China,” he said.
The first round of the final match saw NIWA Koki suffer a straight sets defeat to MA Long, who had already won gold in the singles event. However, in the second singles round, Mizutani lived up to his hype as the best player in Japan’s team by clinching a victory over XU Xin - ranked No.3 in the world at the time - and brought the match level at 1-1.
In the following third doubles round, Niwa and Yoshimura took up the momentum and won the first game 11-4, raising hopes of an upset. However, the Chinese pair began to flex their muscles and display the skills they have been accustomed to showing, winning the following three sets in a row, and eventually taking a 2-1 overall lead.
In the fourth round, Yoshimura suffered a straight sets defeat to MA Long, ending any hope the Japanese team had of claiming the gold medal.
However, although Japan fell short in their goal to defeat People's Republic of China, the athletes did not appear to be disappointed.
Mizutani, the first Japanese player ever to win a bronze medal in the singles event, men’s or women’s, ended up as the winner of all his games in the team event. He even beat XU Xin, one of the “Big Four” of MA Long, FAN Zhendong, XU Xin and ZHANG Jike at the time.
The only match Mizutani lost during the Games was his match against MA Long at the singles semi-final. Even in this match, Mizutani threatened to overturn People's Republic of China’s stronghold.
“I hadn’t won against any of the 'Big Four' players for the past 10 years," he said, "Defeating one of them on the greatest stage of the Olympic Games, moreover in the final, would have meant even more to me than the medal.”
Niwa also did well in the singles and made it to the final eight, although he had not been able to unleash his full potential at the team event. Yoshimura demonstrated some excellent moves during the doubles round in the team event, lifting the morale of the team. The team manager, KURASHIMA Yosuke dubs Mizutani, Niwa and Yoshimura the “three geniuses”.
During the decade from 2007 to 2016, these three players had dominated all available titles at the All Japan Table Tennis Championships (Mizutani, eight times, Niwa and Yoshimura, one time each).
“I can say I was able to send the most reliable players [to Rio 2016]. If they weren’t good enough to secure gold, then there’s nothing more we can do," Kurashima proudly said.
"I am filled with deep emotion when I think that these three Japanese talents were finally able to open the door for Japan’s men’s table tennis - 28 years after table tennis became an official sport at the Olympic Games."
Until the Rio 2016 Games, the spotlight tended to shine on Japan’s women’s table tennis team, with star players FUKUHARA Ai and ISHIKAWA Kasumi having achieved impressive results - including a silver medal in the team event at the London 2012 Games.
Mizutani revealed his ambition and desire to put men’s table tennis on the map too.
“I've always felt, strongly, that one day the men’s team had to win a medal as well.”
This ardent wish came to pass at Rio 2016. Having gained a silver medal, there is no doubt that the men’s team will garner much attention at Tokyo 2020.
Having ensured themselves a medal after defeating Germany in the team semi-final, Mizutani remarked:
“Winning a medal in the singles event is a personal dream, but winning a medal at the team event is every member’s dream. The medal that we have secured will be remembered as the first one in the history of Japan’s men’s team table tennis. Hopefully, it will be a big one that will allow us to take a giant leap from Rio to Tokyo.”
The “three geniuses” forged a new chapter in the history of Japanese table tennis.
They will continue to strive to win gold at Tokyo 2020, and make every member’s dream come true once again.