This column is posted at japan-forward.com.
By Ed Odeven
Victory validates effort.
And the emotions that follow a monumental victory ー spontaneous, euphoric, tearful ー can leave a lasting impression.
For participants and for observers, reactions to glorious achievements in sporting competitions are often remembered as much as how and when somebody won in a marquee event.
At other times, though, the real meaning of the victory can be equally compelling when it’s discussed months or even years later.
To illustrate today’s theme, the focus is on swimmers Kosuke Kitajima and Ai Shibata, both of whom achieved greatness at the Olympics.
Kitajima’s double gold-medal haul in the men’s 100- and 200-meter breaststroke at the 2004 Athens Games and 2008 Beijing Olympics is the stuff of legends. Decades from now, people will still discuss with awe what the muscular, but undersized swimmer did in Greece and China. Like his father, a butcher, Kitajima put his opponents on a metaphorical chopping block.
Seconds after Kitajima repeated in the 100 with a record-breaking time of 58.91 seconds in Beijing, I witnessed an emotional outburst of genuine excitement as great as anything I’ve seen before or after. Pure joy.
That image, splashed on the pages of dozens of newspapers, magazines and websites afterward, displayed the thrill of the moment and what led to that moment: thousands of hours of training in the pool, grueling workouts in the gym, daily discipline in all phases of life.
Repeating as 100-meter champion validated the Tokyo native’s entry into an elite fraternity: Olympic legends.
Looking back at that race, Kitajima couldn’t hide the fact that what he did impressed him.
“My performance was perfect and ideal,” he declared in the Chinese capital in front of a throng of reporters, while inspiring a generation of young athletes, too. “I would have been baffled if you do not say that was perfect.”
Honestly, nobody embracing logic could’ve argued with Kitajima’s assessment on that hot August day. And that remains true.
Shibata’s shining moment occurred in the Greek capital on August 20, 2004. She shocked the world by winning the women’s 800 freestyle and ending American domination (five straight Olympic golds) in the event. She touched the wall in 8 minutes, 24.54 seconds in a test of stamina and strength.
In doing so, she became the first Japanese female to finish first in an Olympic swimming freestyle event.
In the run-up to the 2004 Athens Games, Shibata, who hails from Dazaifu, Fukuoka Prefecture, demonstrated that her commitment to excellence and athletic ability were a potent combination. In that year’s national championships, she beat everyone in the 200, 400 and 800 freestyle races, while showing off-the-charts improvement in the 400 (5.36 seconds faster than her previous personal record) and the 800 (10.69 seconds quicker).
Not only did Shibata obliterate her own records in the process, but also announced her arrival on the national scene as a star by ending Sachiko Yamada’s reign as Japan’s freestyle queen.
Shibata ended Yamada’s run of six consecutive titles in the 400, then stopped her string of seven straight crowns in the 800.
And what did that mean to Shibata?
Life-changing affirmation of her swimming ability.
“Before, Sachiko Yamada would always be leagues ahead of everyone and I would just hope for second,” Shibata said in April 2005.
When Shibata arrived in Greece as an underdog, it was only a matter of time before she etched her name in the annals of aquatic history.
Indeed, her impressive physical fitness was a necessary catalyst for gold. But you can’t dismiss the role that confidence played when Shibata made her big splash.
“I gained confidence after getting the gold medal (in Athens), so I’m no longer afraid to go all out in a race,” Shibata said the next year. (And without fear, extraordinary athletic feats happen. Go ahead and watch any of Kitajima’s Olympic gold medal-winning races as a reference point. All these years later, it’s still a treat.)