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Rikako Ikee
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Rikako Ikee, Japan swim star, eyes competition return from leukemia

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Japanese swimmer Rikako Ikee reportedly set a goal to return to swimming competition in October from a February 2019 leukemia diagnosis.

“I think my swimming ability has returned to about the level in my first or second year of junior high school,” Ikee, who turns 20 on Saturday, said Thursday, according to a Kyodo News translation. “My aspiration as a 20-year-old is to compete in some kind of event, get an accurate read on my current status, and then find more and more ways to get stronger.”

Ikee, Japan’s premier female swimmer in 2017 and 2018, was discharged after a 10-month hospitalization in December. She set a goal then of competing in the 2024 Paris Olympics. The Tokyo Games have since been postponed to 2021, but she said Thursday that 2024 remains the intention, according to Japanese media.

“I’m aiming for 2024,” Ikee said, according to Kyodo. “I’m hoping to build a solid foundation since I’m no longer tied down by next year’s Olympics.”

Ikee reportedly returned to the pool in March and has been training four times a week in hopes of competing this fall, should meets be held amid the current coronavirus pandemic.

Before her leukemia diagnosis, Ikee won the 100m butterfly at the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships, the year’s major international meet, clocking the fastest time in the world for the year. She also took silver in the 200m freestyle ahead of Katie Ledecky. She later earned six golds, including four in individual events, at the Asian Games.

Ikee finished fifth in the 100m butterfly as a 16-year-old at the Rio Olympics.

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Kohei Uchimura will not defend Olympic all-around title; will he still get to Tokyo?

Kohei Uchimura
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The greatest male gymnast in history gave up hope of competing in the two biggest finals of what could be his last Olympics, and a home Games at that, 13 months before the Opening Ceremony. Will he make it to the Tokyo Games at all?

Japan’s Kohei Uchimura, who won all eight Olympic and world all-around titles from 2009-16, fought injuries every year of this Olympic cycle and missed the world championships last year for the first time since 2007.

Even with the Tokyo Games postponed to 2021, the soft-spoken king is already saying his best chance to compete will be to focus on one apparatus — high bar — rather than attempting the all-around to make the four-gymnast Japanese roster for the team event.

Uchimura, a 31-year-old who developed a penchant for Pokemon Go, said going into the Rio Games that he did not expect to compete in the individual all-around in Tokyo. He gave up the chance to become the first three-time Olympic all-around champ.

Uchimura, by also withdrawing from team-event consideration and focusing on the high bar, moved those previous comments a step farther. He’s taking himself out of the running for four of up to six Japanese men’s Olympic spots. Outside of the four-person team event, a nation can potentially qualify those fifth and sixth spots for individual events only.

Japan is likely to qualify those two extra spots to give Uchimura a chance of being chosen for Tokyo, where he would be one the biggest stars for the Olympic host nation across all sports. Even if he competes in just one of the eight men’s gymnastics medal finals.

However, another Japanese gymnast, Kohei Kameyama, could grab one of those two spots for himself via results in the World Cup series on pommel horse. That will not be determined until the last series stop in Doha, postponed from last March to some time in 2021.

Aside from that route, Japan’s gymnastics federation would have power over how those fifth and sixth spots would be filled.

Uchimura’s quest is complicated by the fact that Japan has a new high bar standout in Hidetaka Miyachi, who boasts the most difficult element on the apparatus. If Miyachi, who has never competed in a team event at the world championships, is not on the four-man team-event roster in Tokyo, he and Uchimura may be in direct competition for one Olympic spot.

“[Uchimura] may come out of this [one-year Olympic postponement] better, but I would say that the odds are against that,” NBC Sports analyst Tim Daggett said in early spring, after the Olympics were postponed. “He had a long period of time to figure out what his plan was. They had already taken the time off that they needed to address some of those physical issues. Now, it’s a very long road again.”

Olympic history is dotted by athletes who make one last bid to compete in a home Games at or near the end of their careers. Most recently, weightlifter Pyrros Dimas in 2004 (bronze), diver Guo Jingjing and gymnast Yang Wei in 2008 (each double gold), cyclist Chris Hoy in 2012 (double gold) and swimmer Cesar Cielo in 2016 (failed to qualify).

MORE: Olympic age rule stirs reaction from gymnastics community

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

Hayato Sakamoto
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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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