UPDATE1: Asian Games: Japan team comes together for journey to Tokyo 2020
Japan officially unveiled its team for the eighth Winter Asian Games on Thursday in a ceremony in Sapporo, with Japanese Olympic Committee President Tsunekazu Takeda imploring the athletes to boost their nation along its journey to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
"The Asian Winter Games were first competed in 1986 in Sapporo and the importance of the event has grown and grown," Takeda said in his opening remarks ahead of the games that will officially open on Sunday and run through Feb. 26.
"At this event, the third to be held in Sapporo, a record 32 national Olympic committees are taking part, and the level of the competition has become high."
"The reliability of winter sports in Asia is evidenced by the hosting of the Winter Games in Pyeongchang next year and in Beijing in 2022."
"To you athletes I charge you with going into these games with high expectations and courage...so that you can help propel Japan toward the 2020 Olympics to be held in Tokyo."
Three days before the opening ceremony is held at Sapporo Dome and two before the first competition begins, Japan's delegation of 146 athletes and 84 coaches and managers was represented by a total group of 55 at the team formation ceremony.
Women's curling captain Mari Motohashi was presented as the Japan captain, while men's ice hockey captain Go Tanaka was presented with the Japan flag he will bear on Sunday when he leads the team into Sapporo Dome.
Motohashi, whose team will compete in September for a spot in the Pyeongchang Olympics, spoke of what these games meant to her.
"It's been a while since I've been a part of a Japan team and that comes with some nerves," Motohashi said. "Normally, I am only in competition with my curling team, but this is Japan and I want to do my best in order that each and every one of us connects as part of that team."
Tanaka said his team has a lot to fight for despite being eliminated from the Pyeongchang Games.
"This is my third Asian Games," he said. "We won a gold medal, then we lost it and settled for silver last time in Kazakhstan. That's a lot of frustration I want to put behind me. We are skating on home ice and we expect a lot of support."
"As for being flag bearer, I was stunned when I was appointed and feel extremely nervous about it. I want all of the athletes from all of the sports to band together, fight together and feed off each other's energy here for the sake of Japan."
The chief of Japan's delegation, Toshimasa Furukawa, said the winter games have come a long way since 1986, but admitted there is still much room for improvement.
"I have high ambition in winter sports, not just for Japan but for all of Asia," said Furukawa, who said he would like to see his nation leave Sapporo with 20 gold medals.
"But to be frank, while the level of the competition is close to what I imagined for it in 1986, we still lag behind. Asians lack technique and knowhow in a number of sports, and the only way to cure that is to get out and do it."
"We are good in areas. The South Koreans are extremely strong in speed skating and we're strong in some areas, but Asian nations are not strong across the board in winter sports. These games, the Pyeongchang Olympics and the Beijing Olympics to follow are going to be a huge boost toward that."
Afterward the 55-member strong group from team Japan was officially welcomed into the athletes village in another ceremony. The chief of the athletes village, Emi Watanabe, was the first woman to win an individual figure skating world championships bronze medal for Japan.