The origins of AJINOMOTO CO., INC. (hereafter referred to as “AJINOMOTO CO.”) lie in its production of amino acids, and under the corporate slogan “Eat Well, Live Well” the company has since become widely known for its relentless pursuit of foods and health. Since 2003, AJINOMOTO CO. has been carrying out its Victory Project® in conjunction with the Japanese Olympic Committee (hereafter referred to as “JOC”) to provide conditioning support for members and potential members of Japan Olympic Team through the use of amino acids. In recent years, the company has been providing a wide range of strengthening support to elite athletes through such measures as offering advice on nutritional management, developing menus for training camps, and providing food during athletes' overseas trips.
We spoke to Hidefumi Kurihara, who has been working on the Victory Project® and providing on-site support to well-known elite athletes since 2004. The interviewer was Hanae Ito, an Olympian who competed at the Beijing 2008 Games and who is currently a member of staff in the Communications and Engagement Bureau of the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Ito received much valuable support from Kurihara during her years as an active athlete, and spoke to the AJINOMOTO CO. staff member about his role on the frontline of providing support for athletes.
Providing nutritional support to athletes
Ms. Hanae Ito
When did you first become involved in the Victory Project®?
Hidefumi Kurihara, Senior Manager, Victory Project Group, Olympic and Paralympic Promotion Office, AJINOMOTO CO., INC.:
I was transferred to the company's Victory Project® in July 2004. It was just around the time of the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, and as I had only just been transferred I wasn't sent to Athens for the Games. It was in the following September that I really started work on providing support for the athletes. At the time, the athletes were doing all they could, but in some ways they were trying too hard and their efforts were a bit frantic. That's when we started thinking about the Victory Project® and how we could make a contribution to supporting the athletes in terms of nutrition.
I think the support that coaches and trainers will be able to provide to athletes from the perspective of nutrition thanks to AJINOMOTO CO.'s Victory Project® will constitute a major legacy to the sporting community. If someone points out that it is a matter of course that a lack of nutrition leads to athletes not being able to maximise their training, the athletes will recognise this, and it will result in athletes having a more stable mindset. How did the Victory Project® first become involved in swimming?
Originally, the Victory Project® began as a means of popularising the Amino Vital® product which used amino acids as the main component. When considering sports that consume a high degree of energy, and which require high levels of amino acids, we saw that swimming was a high intensity sport.
Mr. Kurihara explaining about Victory Project®
Yes, it is. When I was training I used to take five powder sticks of Amino Vital® every day, always before and after training sessions. It was an integral part of my training routine at the time.
Swimmers train very hard everyday and I believe ingestion of amino acids is an essential part of an athlete's raining routine.
In the swimming world, coaches are often very proactive in providing younger swimmers and children at swimming schools with necessary information. Elite athletes are very aware that absorption of amino acids is extremely important, so coaches emphasise the need to take amino acids on board as an essential part of the daily training routine.
Therefore, the Victory Project® supports elite athletes indirectly, but I think it is hugely significant because it supports young people and children who are into swimming by stressing the importance of repeatedly communicating essential information.
I am sure that athletes have often asked you for advice. Have there ever been any occasions when you have been particularly pleased that you are supporting athletes?
Yes, almost on a daily basis. Our Victory Project® isn't made up exclusively of elite athletes. We also have many junior athletes and athletes from a range of age groups. We see it as our mission to provide as much support as we can to all of these athletes who are working so hard to achieve their goals.
Mr. Kurihara explaining about Amino Vital®
Shifted our main message from ‘Eat Well’ to ‘How to Eat Well’ through our Kachimeshi® (Winning Meals) project.
When did you begin offering Kachimeshi®* in the Sakura Dining facility in the AJINOMOTO NATIONAL TRAINING CENTER?
Kachimeshi® is an initiative for building up a strong body but also makes the nutritional elements tasty. AJINOMOTO CO. has provided much advice on nutritional management and conditioning support to elite athletes through foods and amino acids. This comes from the company's many years of expertise in the field, and widespread dissemination of information.
AJINOMOTO CO. acquired the naming rights for the National Training Center in May 2009. With the conclusion of the contract, AJINOMOTO CO. decides to further widen its support by adding seasonings and sweeteners to its existing amino acids. Everyone, not only athletes, must take nutrition through their daily meals. We felt that we should utilise amino acids and supplementary food products to further enhance nutritional values to enable the athletes to improve their performances and results. At first we focused on providing support through our meals, and then hit on the idea of widening our support, which I think was a good turning point. Amino Vital® is an amino acid of functionality which works physically. On the other hand, the amino acids used in AJI-NO-MOTO® umami seasoning are amino acids that bring out the umami. Having “functional” amino acids and amino acids that draw out the umami is very important, having both these amino acids enables us to come up with new ways of improving foods, and I would say that is one of our strong points. And the embodiment of this is our Kachimeshi®. ‘Eat Well’ has been AJINOMOTO CO.'s main message until recently, but we have now shifted to communicating ‘How to Eat Well’.
From around the time of the London 2012 Games, AJINOMOTO CO.'s staff members were saying that the company's new approach wasn't working very well, and that the image was not inspiring them. Many were skeptical asking how is it possible to transfer the controlled approach of the kind of eating practiced by elite athletes to the general public, or how can we promote this widely and encourage the public to adopt this style of eating.
Eventually, company-wide efforts were made to promote Kachimeshi®, and because this raised awareness levels of the company which made easier for us to support our athletes more.
Does that also include the Tokyo 2020 Games?
Yes. With the Tokyo 2020 Games in mind*, we are making company-wide efforts to determine what legacy we want to leave and the messages we want to communicate. The Games have given us the opportunity to think about what we can do based on our fundamental strengths of meals and nutrition. *During the London 2012 Games, Tokyo had yet to be elected as the host city for the 2020 Games, and we conducted various activities for Tokyo's bid campaign.
Mr. Kurihara talking with smile on his face during interview
In swimming, athletes have a routine in which amino acids play a very important role. Do you have to vary your approach to supporting athletes for other sports?
Yes, we do. Swimming is a sport in which athletes consume high levels of energy. However, there are some sports in which we have to place restrictions on our support. Some athletes feel a resistance to eating with some saying, for example, ‘if I eat I just end up putting on weight.’ But I think it's our duty to tell athletes that if they eat properly it will aid with muscle development which in turn will further enhance their performance levels, and that it's important to have a good balance.
Mr. Kurihara talking about Kachimeshi®
It means, you have to have a deep understanding of many kinds of sports and change your methods accordingly.
That's right. Naturally, we have to understand the particular sport an athlete competes in to allow us to provide support to each individual athlete. Through having a deep understanding of the sport, we can contemplate what the optimal ways are to support the athletes who compete in that sport.
I was kindly allowed in to the JOC G-Road Station* during the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Games. It was a space where you could constantly smell the aroma of the Japanese soup stock of a pot dish, and athletes were able to leave the mental pressures of competing behind and feel like they were back in Japan for a short while.
JOC G-Road Station: The facility was founded by the Japanese Olympic Committee since the Rio 2016 Games after receiving requests from Japanese athletes for a place where light Japanese meals are served during the Olympic Games. It is set up in the host city to complement the functions of the high-performance support center (formerly known as the multi-support house) which is operated by the Japan Sport Council.Catering staff from the Victory Project® and certified nutritionists are stationed at the station, and athletes can receive nutritional support just as if they were at the AJINOMOTO NATIONAL TRAINING CENTER.
With just “eating”, being able to have meals at the JOC G-Road Station gives athletes a peace of mind compared to constantly dining at the Athletes' Village especially when they are out to overseas and participating international games. Thinking “what to eat for” is exactly what the Kachimeshi® project is all about. We want to be able to provide that precisely when the athletes need it. We firmly believe that it is vitally important to have the right meals every day. If the right meals are provided at home, children will eat well, and this will lead to the whole family eating well. It also enhances the company's business, and if restaurants and other eating establishments were to offer similar options, that would be a major plus. And if the athletes, who undergo extreme mental pressures, were able to convey the importance of such eating spaces, that would be a major strength for AJINOMOTO CO..
Our aim is not only to help athletes win medals but to develop healthy bodies to enable them to compete at a level where they can vie for medals through providing nutritious food.
Do you think there are values in supporting athletes and the sporting community?
Yes, most definitely. Athletes set themselves goals and constantly have to think about their bodies. So if athletes convey the message that this is what they eat to allow them perform to their peak, that will be a key message that the public will easily understand. There is a sound theory behind it, and by informing people that the benefits of this kind of food are scientifically proven, I think that will make it much more likely that ordinary homes will become interested in it. In that sense, I think the fact that it is being communicated through sport is the simplest and most effective way of making it stick in people's minds. We are conducting activities aimed at providing support to athletes, but that is not our ultimate goal. Our overriding aim is to encourage and support families across the country to eat healthily. Our business operations aren't aimed solely at aiding athletes in their quest to win medals. We want to help athletes develop healthy bodies to enable them to compete at a level where they can vie for medals through providing nutritious food - and this is where we are focusing our efforts.
I'm sure that you are undertaking a variety of initiatives in the lead up to the Tokyo 2020 Games. Could you tell us about some projects that you are about to launch?
Our company focuses mainly on amino acids, but we're also a company that works on protein. We would like to come up with a scientifically-corroborated indicator that shows just how much protein is beneficial in meals to build up a strong and healthy body. We are working with universities, and through such means as obtaining data and further deepening our research, we will be able to provide support to athletes that can be scientifically verified. We have increased our staff who can conduct scientific analyses and we are now capable to provide more precise support.
We plan to consolidate the basis of this by the year 2020, and then we need to turn our thoughts to how we can promote this to the general public from 2021 onwards. Our ultimate goal isn't 2020. Indeed, we are working towards 2020 being merely the starting point to achieve our aims.
In the lead up to the Tokyo 2020 Games, Mr. Kurihara is undertaking a wide range of efforts aimed at providing food that will support athletes with an even higher degree of precision. Mr. Kurihara and his colleagues will be the focus of attention as they strive to provide support not only to the athletes but to all of us in 2020 and beyond.
Mr. Kurihara and Ms. Itou