Hayato Sakamoto
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‘Derek Jeter of Japan’ set to star at Tokyo Olympics

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The most coveted gold medal for the Olympic host nation next year? A strong case can be made for its national sport of baseball, which returns to the Olympic program — at the request of Tokyo organizers — for the first time since 2008.

Japan never took gold the five times baseball was previously on the Olympic medal program. It came agonizingly close, reaching at least the semifinals in 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008.

While MLB never sent its best to the Games, players from Japan’s top league have participated, including Masahiro TanakaDaisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish, before they came became big leaguers.

In summer 2021, Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) is expected to take a break in its season to send another All-Star team to the Tokyo Olympics. There is debate about who is Japan’s best active NPB player.

There is consensus who is the most popular.

Hayato Sakamoto is in line to be one of the faces of the Tokyo Olympics across all sports. He was labeled “the Derek Jeter of Japan.” English-speaking Japanese baseball experts concur. Sakamoto is the bachelor shortstop and captain of the Yomiuri Giants, the most storied NPB franchise.

“Every aspect of what Derek Jeter was, Sakamoto is that,” said Scott Mathieson, a Canadian pitcher who retired last year after playing the last eight seasons on Sakamoto’s Giants. “He’s the biggest leader. Everyone looks up to him.”

Sakamoto, 31, is an 11-time All-Star coming off his first Central League MVP season. He smacked a career-high 40 home runs in 2019 and is en route to becoming one of the youngest players to reach 2,000 hits in NPB history (one player has reached 3,000 hits).

Sakamoto has been big ever since he was little. He went to the same elementary school and played on the same little league team as Tanaka. In Japanese youth baseball, the best athlete pitches, and Sakamoto was on the mound and Tanaka behind the plate growing up, said Dan Evans, a former Los Angeles Dodgers GM who scouted players in Japan for the last two decades.

As a 19-year-old in 2008, Sakamoto reportedly became the first Yomiuri Giants rookie to start on Opening Day since Hideki Matsui. In 2015, venerable catcher Shinnosuke Abe gave up the captain title to Sakamoto in a formal ceremony, four years before Abe retired.

“Sakamoto’s probably the most popular [player in NPB] since [Shohei] Ohtani left,” said Jason Coskrey, a Detroit native who has covered baseball for the Japan Times since 2007. “Even though Abe might be the most revered.”

Evans said Abe is the greatest Japanese player in the last 30 years who never came to MLB. Sakamoto, No. 2 on that list, regularly asked Mathieson how he would fare in the big leagues. But when you’re captain of the Yomiuri Giants (and previously captain-in-waiting), there can be pressure to stay home.

“I personally think he always wanted to go to the major leagues and really challenge himself there,” Mathieson said. “I think he felt like he couldn’t go.

“It’s hard to leave when he’s the man over there.”

In the unlikely scenario that MLB participates in the Olympics for the first time, the 25-year-old Ohtani might not outrank Sakamoto.

“If they walk side by side on the street, everybody would run to Sakamoto,” Mathieson said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s an 80-year-old woman or a 7-year-old girl or boy, they’re going to recognize him. When he goes in the street, he wears a mask and he wears a hat. He can’t really go anywhere.”

It seems logical that Sakamoto follows Abe’s path and sticks with the Giants until retirement. But Evans remembers fixing his eyes on Sakamoto at the World Baseball Classic in 2013 and 2017, when the shortstop went up against big leaguers. Sakamoto stared as they took batting practice and infield.

“At that stage of your career, when you’ve been playing 10 years already, that tells me a lot about him,” Evans said. “He gives a damn.”

Then Sakamoto should know the stakes of Olympic baseball in Tokyo. The Japanese will assemble their best domestic players. The U.S. is expected to send minor leaguers (assuming it qualifies).

When it was best on best, the U.S. edged Japan 2-1 at the 2017 World Baseball Classic. Last November, a U.S. team of minor leaguers stunned a Sakamoto-led Japanese team at the Premier12 global tournament inside the Tokyo Dome (which won’t be used at the Olympics).

“I think they feel more pressure from the Olympics because they’re expected to win,” Mathieson said. “They’re obviously sending their best, who have proven they can compete against major-league players. Now they’re competing against minor-league players, and if they lose, it’s an embarrassment.”

If they win, Sakamoto can claim a title that no other Japanese legend can boast: Olympic champion.

A non-medal baseball exhibition was held at the 1964 Tokyo Games, but Sadaharu Oh didn’t take part at the peak of his career when the Olympics were for amateurs.

Hideo Nomo was on Japan’s second-place team at the 1988 Seoul Games, when it was a non-medal sport and seven years before his watershed move to MLB.

When Ichiro had an opportunity to play at the Olympics in 2000, he reportedly rebuffed.

The opportunity is ripe. In 2010, Sidney Crosby scored the golden goal to lift Canada to an Olympic hockey title in Vancouver. In 2016, Neymar booted the shootout winner of the Olympic soccer final in Rio.

Sakamoto, who was recently diagnosed with the coronavirus (a minor case, Mathieson said, and he was reportedly released from the hospital), is already the talisman of Japan’s most storied franchise. In summer 2021, he can lead the national team to the very biggest prize of the Tokyo Olympics: a first gold medal for Samurai Japan.

This Japanese team will play under considerable weight, compounded by the fact that there will be no Olympic baseball in 2024. A successful tournament in 2021 could boost a bid for the sport’s return at the 2028 Los Angeles Games, by which a whole new generation of Japanese will be playing.

“This group has spent the last 20 years waking up in the morning to watch Ichiro, to watch Matsui, to watch Nomo play,” Evans said. “This is the best collection of talent in the history of the league.”

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World Alpine Skiing Championships on for 2021 after request to delay rejected

Alpine Skiing World Championships
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GENEVA (AP) — A request by the organizers of next year’s skiing world championships in Italy to postpone the event by one year was rejected Thursday by the International Ski Federation.

FIS ruled that the event will go ahead from Feb. 9-21, 2021, in Cortina d’Ampezzo — the highlight of an Alpine season that faces challenges to find safe protocols for international travel and attending races in Europe, North America and China.

The Veneto region of northern Italy was hit hard by the coronavirus and the season-ending World Cup races in Cortina in mid-March were canceled. That week-long event was to be a test for the 2021 worlds.

“The last month of efforts to come to this solution demonstrates the strong collaborative spirit of the ski family and stakeholders.” FIS president Gian-Franco Kasper said.

Organizers in Italy have said they expect losses of about 30 million euros ($34 million) if the worlds are also canceled. They asked for a postponement to March 2022, which would be only weeks after the Beijing Olympics.

“But we will be ready in any case and we will show that these world championships can change the history of a region despite the current difficulties,” Alessandro Benetton, president of the Cortina organizing committee, said in a statement.

Italian racer Sofia Goggia, the 2018 Olympic downhill champion, said she was “happy for Cortina because it will host the first major international event after the coronavirus epidemic.”

Cortina, which hosted the 1956 Olympics, will co-host the 2026 Winter Games with Milan and use the worlds as a showcase for the resort.

The women’s World Cup downhill on the Olympia delle Tofane course each January is one of the most scenic in the sport with a signature jump between tall outcrops of jagged rock.

The Dolomites venue was awarded the 2021 worlds by FIS after missing out as a candidate four straight times from 2013-19.

MORE: Anna Veith retires, leaves Austrian Alpine skiing in unfamiliar territory

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Russia track and field athlete clearance frozen due to unpaid fine

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MONACO (AP) — The program allowing Russian track athletes to compete internationally will be frozen because the country’s federation failed to pay a fine on time, World Athletics said Thursday.

The Russian track federation, known as RusAF, owes a $5 million fine and another $1.31 million in costs for various doping-related work and legal wrangles. World Athletics said RusAF missed Wednesday’s deadline to pay.

World Athletics said it would freeze the work of the Doping Review Board, which vets Russian athletes who want the “authorized neutral athlete” status that allows them to compete internationally, and its taskforce monitoring RusAF’s anti-doping reforms.

World Athletics said both bodies will be “put on hold” until its council meets to discuss the situation at the end of July.

“RusAF is letting its athletes down badly,” World Athletics president Sebastian Coe said in a statement. “We have done as much as we can to expedite our ANA process and support RusAF with its reinstatement plan, but seemingly to no avail.”

RusAF president Yevgeny Yurchenko earlier told the Tass state news agency that his federation’s finances were damaged by the coronavirus pandemic and that it had asked for more time to pay.

World Athletics’ statement didn’t directly address that issue, but said Russia hadn’t indicated when it would pay.

Russia was fined $10 million by World Athletics in March, with $5 million suspended for two years, after the federation admitted to breaking anti-doping rules and obstructing an investigation.

The Athletics Integrity Unit said fake documents were used under the previous management to give an athlete an alibi for missing a doping test.

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