Japan welcomes world’s finest gymnasts

Formula One and ATP tennis visit Japan this week but there’s another event set to bring a spring back to nation’s step.

Kohei Uchimura
Two-time all-round world champion Kohei Uchimura is looking to honour the victims of the disaster [GALLO/GETTY]

The titles are important, the spots in the London Olympics even more so. The greatest significance of these world gymnastics championships, however, may have nothing to do with sports at all.

Organisers believe the worlds can be an emotional boost for a country still reeling from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that flattened the northeast coast, that they can dispel myths about conditions here, where life has returned to normal throughout much of the country.

“We are in a situation where we can encourage the Japanese people,” said Morinari Watanabe, president of the local organising committee for the worlds, which starts on Friday at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium.

“We’re kind of forgetting the sad feelings”

Kohei Uchimura

It has been almost seven months since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the northeast coast of Japan, leaving more than 20,000 dead or missing and crippling a nuclear power plant. Though a semblance of normalcy has returned throughout much of the country, the scars of the disaster are deep and will take years to heal.

The Japanese economy, struggling before the earthquake, remains troubled.

Thousands were displaced. Entire villages were erased and others, tainted by radiation, may never be inhabitable again.

Any respite, regardless of the size or the source, is welcome.

“We’re kind of forgetting the sad feelings,” two-time world champion Kohei Uchimura said through an interpreter.

“But I want to continue (to honour) the victims in these championships.”

No risk, no drama

Many sporting events that were supposed to be held in Japan were moved, rescheduled or cancelled outright after the earthquake.

The world figure skating championships, scheduled to begin 10 days after the quake in Tokyo, were instead held in Moscow a month later. The Yokohama leg of the International Triathlon Union’s World Championship was moved from May to September.

Some national federations and sports initially expressed concern about coming to Tokyo, worrying that their gymnasts might be exposed to elevated radiation levels. But the International Gymnastics Federation decided in May to go ahead as planned after consulting with experts from the World Health Organisation and the International Olympic Committee.

“There was not the risk,” FIG president Bruno Grandi said on Thursday.

“Why, if we have not the risk, should we create other problems psychologically? These people need to receive the help, not the drama.”

Indeed, Japan’s woes have been compounded by rumours about conditions. Many foreigners left Japan immediately after the disaster, and some still think the entire country is unsafe.

          Rafael Nadal is currently taking part in the Japan Open in Tokyo [GALLO/GETTY] 

Just last month, race car driver Danica Patrick created a stir by saying she was worried about the radiation levels in the food and water and the possibilities of aftershocks.

After Patrick arrived, she said everything was fine. While there have been other sporting events in Japan – tennis star Rafael Nadal is in Tokyo this week for the Japan Open and the Formula One circuit stops in Suzuka on Sunday – more than 500 gymnasts from 81 countries are in Japan for the worlds, which are the main qualifier for next summer’s London Olympics.

“By having this competition here in Japan, that will resolve all of the misunderstandings outside of Japan,” Watanabe said.

The gymnasts are convinced. Some are even making their second trip since the earthquake, with all but one of the top men’s teams coming to Tokyo in June for the Japan Cup.

“Being here once and being here again, it’s a testament to the fact that Japan is safe,” American gymnast Jonathan Horton said.

“I know it’s an unfortunate thing, many people have lost their lives and it’s been a terrible disaster. I think it’s a great kind of a rebound for this country to be able to say, `Look. Look what we’re doing. Everything’s good, we’ve got it under control.’

“All the athletes are excited to be here,” Horton said.

“Tokyo is a fantastic city, Japan is an awesome country to be in and I think everything is good to go.”

Source: AP