Hideki Matsuyama, Masters winner, adds to Tokyo Olympic storylines for Japan

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As Hideki Matsuyama became the first Japanese man to win a major championship at the Masters on Sunday, golf analysts predicted what it would mean for the Tokyo Olympics.

Matsuyama could light the cauldron at the Opening Ceremony on July 23, Nick Faldo said. Matsuyama and tennis player Naomi Osaka could be Japan’s flag bearers, Brandel Chamblee said. (Nations can now have one male and one female flag bearer if they wish.)

Yes, Matsuyama is expected to be one of the host nation’s biggest stars at the Tokyo Games. And he has a personal story that ties into the Olympics despite the fact that golf has been contested for medals just once in his life.

But many Japanese athletes are worthy of the three major traditional honors at an Opening Ceremony — cauldron lighter, flag bearer and oath taker — and a large share of headlines and highlights over the 16 days thereafter. A few from that group who stand out in individual sports:

Rikako Ikee, Swimming
Made national news the Sunday preceding the Masters by qualifying for the Olympics after spending 10 months in 2019 hospitalized for leukemia. Ikee, a 20-year-old who when diagnosed was ranked No. 1 in the world in the 100m butterfly, won four events at Japan’s Olympic Trials. Due to time standards, she’s only guaranteed to swim relays at the Games. “It’s a miracle that I’m alive,” Ikee reportedly said in February 2020, one month before the Tokyo Games were postponed, making it possible for her to qualify.

Naomi Osaka and Kei Nishikori, Tennis
Arguably Japan’s two most recognizable active athletes worldwide. They could compete together at the Olympics in mixed doubles, though they have never done so before and rarely play doubles at all. Neither ruled out the pairing when asked at the 2019 U.S. Open. “I would actually need to practice doubles for the first time in my life,” Osaka joked. “Because you cannot play mixed doubles with Kei Nishikori and lose in the first round of the Olympics in Tokyo.” Japan’s first Olympic medals came in tennis — 101 years ago at the Antwerp Games.

Kohei Uchimura, Gymnastics
Uchimura is not guaranteed a place on the Olympic team, but it would be shocking if he is not chosen for individual events only. He is 32 years old and going for his fourth and almost certainly final Olympics. There is no doubting his status as a legend. Uchimura is the only male or female gymnast to win back-to-back Olympic all-around titles in 49 years. He owns six world all-around titles (one more than Simone Biles). And gymnastics is Japan’s most successful Olympic sport by total medals.

MORE: Tokyo Olympics an end goal for American behind Matsuyama, Japan sports icons

And then there’s Matsuyama.

Tokyo organizers tied at first the 2020 Olympic bid, and now the 2021 Olympic plan, to help boost the recovery and reconstruction of Japan following the March 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 15,000 people.

Matsuyama was a student at Tohoku Fukushi University when the disaster struck. He was not on campus but working on his game in Australia in early March 2011. He returned to find his dorm room ravaged — his college hometown of Sendai “devastated beyond imagination” — and struggled to find food.

Less than a month later, he debuted at the Masters as a 19-year-old amateur — qualifying by winning a tournament at the venue that will host the Tokyo Olympics. He was the low amateur at Augusta. Per tradition, he was interviewed on national TV in the U.S., saying through an interpreter that he planned to volunteer back home in the recovery efforts.

That interview was April 10, 2011, shortly after 7 p.m. in Butler Cabin.

On April 10, 2021, shortly after 7 p.m., Matsuyama sat in Butler Cabin for a post-round interview while he held a four-shot lead after a moving-day 65. He returned again Sunday as the champion, ending a four-year winless drought during which he fell from No. 3 in the world to No. 25. He was as high as No. 2 before his previous win in 2017.

Then somebody told him about Faldo’s cauldron comment.

“It would be quite an honor. But I’m not sure about my schedule,” said Matsuyama, who could be at the Opening Ceremony if he goes straight to Japan from the Open Championship that ends on July 18. “If the schedules worked out, and I am in Japan when that happens, and they ask me, what an honor that would be.”

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Elena Fanchini, medal-winning Alpine skier, dies at 37

Elena Fanchini
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Italian skier Elena Fanchini, whose career was cut short by a tumor, has died. She was 37.

Fanchini passed away Wednesday at her home in Solato, near Brescia, the Italian Winter Sports Federation announced.

Fanchini died on the same day that fellow Italian Marta Bassino won the super-G at the world championships in Meribel, France; and two days after Federica Brignone — another former teammate — claimed gold in combined.

Sofia Goggia, who is the favorite for Saturday’s downhill, dedicated her win in Cortina d’Ampezzo last month to Fanchini.

Fanchini last raced in December 2017. She was cleared to return to train nearly a year later but never made it fully back, and her condition grew worse in recent months.

Fanchini won a silver medal in downhill at the 2005 World Championships and also won two World Cup races in her career — both in downhill.

She missed the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics because of her condition.

Fanchini’s younger sisters Nadia and Sabrina were also World Cup racers.

USA Boxing to skip world championships

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USA Boxing will not send boxers to this year’s men’s and women’s world championships, citing “the ongoing failures” of the IBA, the sport’s international governing body, that put boxing’s place on the Olympic program at risk.

The Washington Post first reported the decision.

In a letter to its members, USA Boxing Executive Director Mike McAtee listed many factors that led to the decision, including IBA governance issues, financial irregularities and transparency and that Russian and Belarusian boxers are allowed to compete with their flags.

IBA lifted its ban on Russian and Belarusian boxers in October and said it would allow their flags and anthems to return, too.

The IOC has not shifted from its recommendation to international sports federations last February that Russian and Belarusian athletes be barred, though the IOC and Olympic sports officials have been exploring whether those athletes could return without national symbols.

USA Boxing said that Russian boxers have competed at an IBA event in Morocco this month with their flags and are expected to compete at this year’s world championships under their flags.

“While sport is intended to be politically neutral, many boxers, coaches and other representatives of the Ukrainian boxing community were killed as a result of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, including coach Mykhaylo Korenovsky who was killed when a Russian missile hit an apartment block in January 2023,” according to the USA Boxing letter. “Ukraine’s sports infrastructure, including numerous boxing gyms, has been devastated by Russian aggression.”

McAtee added later that USA Boxing would still not send athletes to worlds even if Russians and Belarusians were competing as neutrals and without their flags.

“USA Boxing’s decision is based on the ‘totality of all of the factors,'” he said in an emailed response. “Third party oversite and fairness in the field of play is the most important factor.”

A message has been sent to the IBA seeking comment on USA Boxing’s decision.

The women’s world championships are in March in India. The men’s world championships are in May in Uzbekistan. They do not count toward 2024 Olympic qualifying.

In December, the IOC said recent IBA decisions could lead to “the cancellation of boxing” for the 2024 Paris Games.

Some of the already reported governance issues led to the IOC stripping IBA — then known as AIBA — of its Olympic recognition in 2019. AIBA had suspended all 36 referees and judges used at the 2016 Rio Olympics pending an investigation into a possible judging scandal, one that found that some medal bouts were fixed by “complicit and compliant” referees and judges.

The IOC ran the Tokyo Olympic boxing competition.

Boxing was not included on the initial program for the 2028 Los Angeles Games announced in December 2021, though it could still be added. The IBA must address concerns “around its governance, its financial transparency and sustainability and the integrity of its refereeing and judging processes,” IOC President Thomas Bach said then.

This past June, the IOC said IBA would not run qualifying competitions for the 2024 Paris Games.

In September, the IOC said it was “extremely concerned” about the Olympic future of boxing after an IBA extraordinary congress overwhelmingly backed Russian Umar Kremlev to remain as its president rather than hold an election.

Kremlev was re-elected in May after an opponent, Boris van der Vorst of the Netherlands, was barred from running against him. The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled in June that van der Vorst should have been eligible to run against Kremlev, but the IBA group still decided not to hold a new election.

Last May, Rashida Ellis became the first U.S. woman to win a world boxing title at an Olympic weight since Claressa Shields in 2016, taking the 60kg lightweight crown in Istanbul. In Tokyo, Ellis lost 3-0 in her opening bout in her Olympic debut.

At the last men’s worlds in 2021, Robby Gonzales and Jahmal Harvey became the first U.S. men to win an Olympic or world title since 2007, ending the longest American men’s drought since World War II.

The Associated Press and NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

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