Watabe finishes 7th in normal hill Nordic combined

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Akito Watabe finishes seventh in the cross-country part of the normal hill Nordic combined at the Beijing Games on Wednesday.

Japan fell short of winning a third consecutive medal in the individual normal hill of Nordic combined on Wednesday.

Akito Watabe had won silver medals in the ski event, which combines jumping and a 10-kilometer cross-country race, in Sochi in 2014 and in Pyeongchang in 2018. But he finished only seventh this time, the highest place among the Japanese athletes in the event.

His younger brother Yoshito Watabe finished 13th.

Ryota Yamamoto, who was the leader in the first-half jump, finished in 14th place, and Sora Yachi was 30th.

The winner was Vinzenz Geiger, earning a third consecutive gold medal for Germany.

Hope for large hill

Akito Watabe joined the leading group during the cross-country part of the sport, with rivals including Austrian Johannes Lamparter, who leads the World Cup overall standings.

 But Geiger picked up the pace in the third lap, and expanded the distance between himself and Watabe in the fourth lap. But Watabe remained competitive, finishing seventh.

“If I don’t get a medal, it doesn’t matter what place I get,” he said with regret, “but if I can do a bit better in the jump and save my energy in the right places, I can be more competitive.”

 Watabe, 33, has competed in five Olympics since Turin in 2006. His two consecutive silver medals in Sochi and Pyeongchang are testaments to his stalwart approach of seeking nothing but success in the sport.

 However, his son, born in November 2020, has greatly changed Watabe’s way of thinking about the sport. “Watching him grow up became the top priority in my life,” he said. He even thinks he can stop skiing now, despite having loved it so much. He wants to spend more time with his family. He will continue to compete, but said, “This is the last time I spend my time 100% for myself, trying to win a gold medal.”

 His jump was 98 meters, which put him in a tie for ninth place. “That doesn’t mean I have lost the possibility of winning a medal,” he encouraged himself. However, he was 1 minute and 16 seconds behind the leader, Yamamoto, at the start of the cross-country. He could not pull off a miracle.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Ryota Yamamoto took first place in the jump, the first half of the normal hill Nordic combined in Beijing on Wednesday.

 This year, he was also given the important role of flag bearer, making him feel even greater responsibility for Team Japan.

“I feel like my head is barely attached by just a scrap of neck skin,” he said, using a Japanese idiom that describes having the barest chance of making it.

He will compete in the individual large hill Tuesday.

Yamamoto’s big jump

 As for Yamamoto, he was forced to confront a thick wall of rivals.

“It was over in an instant,” he said.

 He did very well in what he is good at. In the jump, the first half of the Nordic combined, he made a huge leap of 108 meters and grabbed first place. “I pulled out my best jump at the best time,” he said.

 He started the cross-country, the second half of the sport, with a 38-second lead over the skier in second place.

“I know I cannot maintain this lead with my ability,” he calmly assessed. Rather than trying to maintain the lead, he would run efficiently and try to get a good position when the group behind him inevitably caught up.

 The cross-country part of the event consists of four laps of 2.5 kilometers each. Coach Takanori Kono said, “In a normal race, the altitude is at most 1,200 meters,” but the altitude of this course was between 1,600 and 1,700 meters. Oxygen is thin and the air is cold. Yamamoto himself felt that it was “the toughest I had ever done in all my years of competition.” This may have been a factor, and the second to fourth skiers soon caught up with him. “I was skiing alone and using up more of my energy than I thought,” he said.

He was left behind on the first uphill stretch of the third lap, and lost his position to finish 14th.