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Swimming

How Japan rose to become a swimming superpower in the Olympics

While the USA is considered the swimming giant, Japan is the pioneer of modern swimming techniques and also the superpower in Olympics

Kosuke Kitajima of Japan reacts after winning at Athens Olympics 2004
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Kosuke Kitajima of Japan reacts after he won the men's swimming 100-metre breaststroke final at the Athens 2004 (Source: Olympics)

By

Monish Naidu

Updated: 2021-07-21T22:45:30+05:30

The year was 1928. The world had just finished healing after the first world war. In such dire circumstances, the 8th iteration of the Olympic games was organized in Amsterdam. During those years, the games were dominated by American athletes constituting more than half of the medals that were on offer. Especially in sports like Swimming in which their sheer physical strength came handy.

Till the games in 1928, the USA had won 29 gold medals in Swimming across disciplines. While we consider the USA as the powerhouse in swimming, it is a lesser-known fact that Japan was the pioneer of modern swimming techniques. But all was not merry for the men from the land so east.

They had won a solitary gold medal till 1928. While they sent just 2 swimmers in 1920, the number increased to a respectable 6 in 1924. But their medal account remained untouched in swimming till 1928.

There was a grand total of 2 swimming pools in the whole of Japan until Yoshiyuki Tsuruta, a railway worker from Kagoshima, a coastal city on the island of Kyushu, came home to bring only the second gold medal in Japan's history, winning the 200m breaststroke.

This was not a triumph by fluke. In the process, Tsuruta beat the world record holder from Germany, Erich Rademacher by almost 2 seconds. Japan was ecstatic. The count of pools all over Japan went up to over a few hundred. Everyone wanted to be Tsuruta.

He was inducted into the Japanese Swimming League (Japanese Swimming Federation back then) and collectively, started to develop ways to beat the USA at a sport that they had ruled in the decades before.

Tsuruta, born on an island city, had access to the fierce sea and the opportunity to train with the Imperial Japanese Navy. The Japanese studied the American technique and compared it with Tsuruta.

They quickly found out that the virtues to remain square-shouldered under the water are not really necessary. While remaining square-shouldered gave the swimmer the required stability underwater, the "distance per stroke" index got vastly reduced.

Japanese swimmer Yoshiyuki Tsuruta (Source: Kyodo news)

Japanese employed sports scientists and devised techniques for their swimmers to extend the length of a stroke by slightly turning their shoulders underwater.

They started to use underwater cameras to develop ways to use their legs to generate the required buoyance. They trumped the American swimmers with a new kicking style too.

While all this looked dreamy in theory, it remained to be seen if the Japanese swimmers could stay true to the promise in the next iteration of the games.

There was a lot of expectation throughout Japan in 1932. The games were organized again in gloomy times when the world was going through the Great Depression. When the Japanese contingent sailed for Los Angeles, there was a flock of more than 2,00,000 fans to see them off.

The USA though, very oblivious to Japan's R&D in swimming, looked confident to continue being the show-stopper in swimming. What followed surprised everyone all over the world.

Japan pipped USA to win 12 medals across disciplines. The USA managed to win 10. But the magnitude of the loss was much more. Japan fielding less than half of the size of the US swimming contingent, managed to win more medals and Tsuruta, managed to defend his title.

This was Tsuruta's shot to stardom and Japan's rise to a swimming superpower. Tsuruta was appointed as the director of the Japanese Swimming Federation after his retirement.

92 years since Japan still is a swimming superpower. They account for 22 gold medals in the sport and just ranked behind the USA, Australia Hungary and East Germany. All credit to that unlikely win in Amsterdam.

They will look to pile on their success in front of their home crowd. While the likes of Kosuke Hagino (400m Individual Medley) and Rie Kaneto (200m breaststroke) will look to do a Tsuruta by defending their titles from Rio 2016, prodigy Daiya Seto will look to upgrade her bronze to gold when she competes in the 400m Individual Medley.

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