TOKYO (AP) — They've set up the elite academy, set in motion the Gold Plan and expect Kohei Uchimura to deliver three medals of that color in Rio de Janeiro next month, all part of the Japanese Olympic Committee's ambitious program leading into Tokyo 2020.
Japan is sending 331 athletes to Rio, the country's third-largest delegation at the Olympics after Tokyo in 1964 and Beijing in 2008, and has targeted 14 gold medals — double its tally from London four years ago.
Koji Murofushi, the 2004 Olympics hammer throw gold medalist who is now sports director for the 2020 Tokyo organizing committee, says Japan's performance in Rio will be vital in paving the way for success on home soil in the subsequent Summer Games.
Rio "is a very important moment for us," Murofushi told The Associated Press. "If the athletes do well in Rio, then more attention would be coming from the public, and then, throughout Tokyo 2020. So it is very important for athletes to compete well."
Japan is anticipating strong performances in men's gymnastics with London gold medalist Kohei Uchimura projected to win three golds. Other gold medal hopefuls include wrestlers Saori Yoshida and Kaori Icho and swimmer Kosuke Hagino.
The expectation is that success in Rio will carry over to Tokyo. Host countries have done well on the medal standings in recent editions.
Japan has set an ambitious goal of third place on the table in Tokyo, a vast improvement on its 11th place at London in 2012.
The goals are set out in the JOC Gold Plan, designed to improve Japan's international competitiveness. A key component of that is the creation of a national youth development program called the JOC Elite Academy to identify and prepare young athletes for the Tokyo Olympics in four years.
Those games are sure to have a different look than Rio. For starters, there could be five new sports added to the program under the International Olympic Committee's new rules that allow a host city to propose sports.
Baseball-softball, surfing, skateboarding, karate and sports climbing have been recommended for inclusion, with a decision expected from the IOC next month.
While Murofushi welcomes the return of baseball and softball, which are hugely popular in Japan, the 41-year-old former Olympian says he's especially excited about new sports making a debut in Tokyo.
"I was a skateboarding kid too," Murofushi said. "Think about the skateboarding kids doing tricks on the streets — once they announce that in the Olympics there will be skateboarding, I know they will be so crazy and excited."
While the 1964 Games were largely about Japan returning to the global stage as an economic power, 2020 will be a showcase of high-tech, safety and organizational efficiency.
"Tokyo is a very secure and safe city," Murofushi said. "So I know that athletes will enjoy both the competition scene and when they're relaxing."