Sports Get into High Gear in Race Against Time for Olympic Qualifying

Naomi Osaka poses with the trophy after winning the Australian Open in Melbourne on Feb. 20.

Having passed the 150-days-to-go mark until the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics on July 23, the race is on to complete qualifying events in time for the Games.

Domestic qualifiers in such popular sports as swimming, athletics and gymnastics will be held over the next few months, while overseas events are scheduled to resume after a long period of suspension.

On Jan. 27, the International Olympic Committee announced that 25% of overall spots for the Games had yet to be determined. Filling those spots will be of the essence to get back on the path that was so markedly disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

In Japan, the final qualifiers for 10-meter rifle shooting and archery are scheduled to be held in Tokyo next month. That will mark the start of qualifiers that will run through June in sports other than judo, table tennis and few others in which the Olympic team members have already been decided.

The competition will be particularly fierce in swimming and athletics, which are both stacked with a large number of top competitors battling it out for the limited Olympic spots. Also noteworthy will be whether swimmer Rikako Ikee, who has made a remarkable comeback from a battle with leukemia, can earn an Olympic ticket at the national championships in Tokyo in April.

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Abdul Hakim Sani Brown smiles after winning a bronze medal in the men’s 4×100 relay at the world championships in Doha on Oct. 5, 2019.

In athletics, the men’s 100 meters will be in the spotlight at the Japan championships in Osaka in June, with Japan record-holder Abdul Hakim Sani Brown and fellow sub-10 sprinter Yoshihide Kiryu among the field vying for the three spots available in the event.

Qualifying in gymnastics kicks off with the All-Japan individual all around championships in Tokyo in April, followed by the NHK Cup and the individual apparatus championships, which will both be held in Gunma Prefecture. Japan has qualified for the Tokyo Olympics in both the men’s and women’s team competitions, and the meets will be used to fill the four spots available on both squads.

For the newly established individual spots, Japan has already secured one, which it can fill as it pleases, and could later gain another. Three-time gold medalist Kohei Uchimura, aiming for a fourth Olympic appearance, will limit himself to the horizontal bar in the individual apparatus events that will feature top-notch competition.

Some sports determine Olympic berths based on world rankings, and a number of top Japanese athletes are taking that path to the Games. Naomi Osaka, who moved up to No. 2 in the world rankings in women’s tennis with her victory at the Australian Open on Feb. 20, said that playing in the Olympics is a really big deal for her.

Kento Momota recovered from a car accident to regain the No. 1 ranking in men’s badminton and assure himself a spot at the Games.

In golf, Nasa Hataoka and Hinako Shibuno are among the women and Hideki Matsuyama is among the men who will be competing to rise high enough in the rankings by June to earn Olympic spots.

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Hinako Shibuno hits a shot during the U.S. Women’s Open in Houston on Dec. 11, 2020.

On the international front, qualifiers that were suspended or postponed are expected to resume. Fencing will resume events, starting with a World Cup meet in March. In wrestling, the Asian qualifying tournament is scheduled for April, with the final world qualifier in May. Two-time world champion and Olympic gold medal favorite Yui Susaki will aim to earn her ticket to the Tokyo Games in the women’s 50-kg weight class at the Asian qualifier in Kazakhstan.

Confusion, however, still reigns in some sports due to the pandemic. On Feb. 15, the International Olympic Committee’s task force on boxing announced that the final qualifying tournament in the sport had been canceled, with Olympic spots in each division to instead be allocated based on world rankings.

Featherweight Hayato Tsutsumi is among five Japanese boxers who planned to enter the world qualifier. Now, because they are not ranked high enough, their Olympic dreams have been ended.

The Japan Amateur Boxing Federation plans to urge the IOC to hold the qualifier. “The boxers have not given up,” said Chairman Sadanobu Uchida. “I hope the qualifier will be held.”