Fina World Championships 2017

Swimming: Dissecting Japan's master stroke

Japan's Daiya Seto, the reigning 400m individual medley world champion, competing in the 200m butterfly semi-finals at the world championships in Budapest. He entered yesterday's final as the top qualifier and eventually took the bronze.
Japan's Daiya Seto, the reigning 400m individual medley world champion, competing in the 200m butterfly semi-finals at the world championships in Budapest. He entered yesterday's final as the top qualifier and eventually took the bronze.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Asian powerhouse sees its investment in swimming pay off as talents rise to the top

Long-term planning and a significant increase in financial support have paid off for the Japanese Swimming Federation (JASF) as it gears up for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Japan was the most successful Asian swimming nation at last year's Rio Games, winning seven medals including two golds. It also boasts several of the sport's rising stars, including Kosuke Hagino, Daiya Seto and Masato Sakai.

Its 17-strong squad at the ongoing world championships is also looking to surpass the class of 2015, whose three golds at the last edition in Kazan, Russia was the nation's most successful haul from the biennial meet.

Yui Ohashi's silver in the women's 200m individual medley and Seto's bronze in the men's 200m butterfly are the team's only medals so far in Budapest, though Japan could still retain its men's 400m IM, women's 200m butterfly and 200m breaststroke titles in the coming days.

The foundations were laid at the turn of the millennium when Osaka was one of the final five cities in the race to host the 2008 Olympics, which was held in Beijing.

Junya Koga, the 100m backstroke world champion in 2009, said there has been a concerted effort from all parties to develop the sport at the grassroots and encourage local swimming clubs to start junior programmes for kids.

The 30-year-old said: "I started swimming when I was five and that was unusual back then. Nowadays it's common for Japanese children to start even younger."

  • LAND OF THE RISING STARS

  • Some of Japan's swimmer who have been making waves in the pool:

    MEN
    KOSUKE HAGINO, 22

    • 2016 Olympics

    Gold: 400m individual medley
    Silver: 200m IM
    Bronze: 4x200m free

    • 2012 Olympics

    Bronze: 400m IM

  • DAIYA SETO, 23

    • 2016 Olympics

    Bronze: 400m IM

    • World Championships

    Gold: 400m IM, 2013, 2015
    Bronze: 200m fly, 2017

  • MASATO SAKAI , 22

    • 2016 Olympics

    Silver: 200m butterfly

  • IPPEI WATANABE, 20

    • 200m breaststroke world and Olympic record holder

  • WOMEN RIKAKO IKEE, 17

    • Owns five individual Japanese national records

    • World Junior Championships

    Gold: 50m, 100m fly, 2015

  • KANAKO WATANABE, 20

    • World Championships

    Gold: 200m breast, 2015
    Silver: 200m IM, 2015

  • YUI OHASHI, 21

    • World Championships

    Silver 200m IM, 2017

This emphasis to grow the sport at the bottom of the pyramid has resulted in many promising youngsters rising through the ranks, said Masakazu Shimizu, sports writer at Japan's national newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun.

He said: "Many parents nowadays want their kids to pick up swimming and are supportive of it. This makes a huge difference. Baseball, basketball, football are still the most popular sports in Japan but swimming is moving up."

The 34-member team sent to Brazil had 21 first-time Olympians and the squad's average age was 22.4 years. In Hungary for the world meet, there are three swimmers (Rikako Ikee, Runa Imai and Suzuka Hasegawa) below 18.

Imai, who as a 15-year-old finished 15th in the women's 200m IM in Rio, said: "We train very hard throughout the year and there are many camps, almost every month, to help us improve. It's not boring because there are many other swimmers around my age and we inspire one another."

High performance comes at a cost and unsurprisingly, spending has increased substantially. The JASF's latest annual budget was about 1.813 billion yen (S$22.1 million), while in 2006 it was 1.186 billion yen.

Reona Aoki, who reached the women's 100m breast semis on Monday, said there was also greater emphasis placed on relays and a three-year timetable would be established to ensure they hit peak form at the Olympics. She added: "We are always aware of our times and how much faster we need to get every year."

PUSHING EACH OTHER ON

There are many camps, almost every month, to help us improve. It's not boring because there are many other swimmers around my age and we inspire one another.

RUNA IMAI , 16-year-old Olympian, on the structure in place in Japan to help swimmers improve.

The quartet of Hagino, Naito Ehara, Yuki Kobori, Takeshi Matsuda finished third in the men's 4x200m free relay in Rio. It was Japan's first medal in the event since 1964.

The combination of these factors has led to markedly improved results. Across four Olympics from Athens 2004 to last year's edition in Rio, Japan has collected seven gold, six silver and 16 bronze medals. The haul from the preceding nine Summer Games (1964-2000) was four golds, two silvers and four bronzes.

Four-time Olympic gold medallist Kosuke Kitajima, 34, is the country's most successful swimmer but he retired last year.

The trio of Seto, 23, Hagino and Sakai, both 22, are expected to take over the mantle. Hagino won gold in the 400m IM in Rio, Seto a bronze in the same event and Sakai took silver in the 200m fly. Team-mate Ippei Watanabe, meanwhile, is 20 and the world record holder in the men's 200m breast.

The future is as bright as it has ever been, said Koga.

He added: "The Americans are still the best team but we now have a group of swimmers who can compete at the highest level consistently."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 27, 2017, with the headline 'Dissecting Japan's master stroke'. Print Edition | Subscribe