Japan claims 1st Nordic combined team medal since 1994

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Akito Watabe, right, skis the third leg of the relay, in which he moved Japan from fourth to second place.

As Ryota Yamamoto crossed the finish line, he thrust his arms into air before skiing into the waiting arms of his delirious teammates. Japan had just ended an Olympic medal drought in the Nordic combined team event that had lasted nearly three decades.

Akito Watabe picked up his second medal of the Beijing Winter Olympics when he combined Hideaki Nagai, brother Yoshito Watabe and Yamamoto to place third on Thursday, Japan’s first medal in the team event since capturing the second of back-to-back golds at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics.

The quartet had placed fourth in the ski jumping portion, but moved up to third in the 20-kilometer cross-country relay to finish behind champion Norway and silver medalist Germany.

Akito Watabe had taken the bronze in the individual large hill event on Tuesday, but this one was more fulfilling. “I’m 10 times happier,” he said.

In recent years, the Big Three of Germany, Norway and Austria had monopolized the medal podium at Olympics and world championships. And prospects did not look bright for breaking up the group heading into the cross-country relay.

As Japan is weaker in the skiing portion, it relies on establishing a buffer with a strong showing in ski jumping. However, even without any major mistakes, the Japanese could only manage fourth place on Thursday, and started the relay 12 seconds behind first-place Austria, with Norway and Germany in between.

The Japan team decided to go with a lineup that started with Yoshito Watabe, followed by 38-year-old Nagai, then Akito Watabe, the strongest skier of the group, with Yamamoto on the anchor.

“We wanted to be in the medal chase up to the end for as long as possible,” coach Takanori Kono said. “Even if Yoshito and Nagai fell behind, Akito would be able to get us back into it.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun
From left, Yoshito Watabe, Hideaki Nagai, Akito Watabe and Ryota Yamamoto pose with the Japanese flag after winning the bronze medal in the Nordic combined team event in Zhangjiakou, China, on Thursday.

Four years ago at the Pyeongchang Games, Japan placed fourth in the event when it fell too far back on the third leg for anchorman Akito Watabe to get into the race for a medal.

Spurred by that painful memory, Yoshito Watabe and Nagai stayed firmly in the lead group this time, setting up Akito Watabe to finish the third leg in second place. Yamamoto kept his composure and brought the team home in third.

Yamamoto honed his ability to ski in a group this season. He had expected Germany’s Vinzenz Geiger, the gold medalist in the individual normal hill event on Feb. 9 at the Zhangjiakou National Cross-Country Skiing Centre, to overtake him from fourth place. However, he managed to hold off the Austrian skier by 4.4 seconds and secure the medal.

“I wanted to get my veteran teammates onto the podium,” Yamamoto said.

The four held hands as they joyfully leaped together onto the podium, their smiles proof of Japan’s comeback in the sport.

“It was a good medal for the sake of the future of Japan’s Nordic combined team,” Akito Watabe said.