Hiroyuki Kato was ecstatic when his eldest son, Ryohei, was chosen to represent Japan at the London Olympics over the Golden Week holidays.
It was the best Children’s Day present the elder Kato could think of for Ryohei, a first-year student at Juntendo University.
But as head of the Konami Corp. gymnastics club, which has trained three out of the five gymnasts recently selected for the men’s national team, including three-time world all-around champion Kohei Uchimura, Kato is feeling an overwhelming sense of responsibility to revive Japan’s glorious past in the sport.
“I am overjoyed as a parent, but I have so much responsibility as part of the training staff for the national team aiming for a team gold,” Kato says.
As an active gymnast, Kato struggled in the shadows of Japan’s glory days. The men’s national team had won 10 consecutive gold medals at the Olympics and world championships in the 1960s and 1970s, but often lost out to the former Soviet Union and China in the 1980s.
“Japan couldn’t beat rival nations because we were overshadowed by our past,” Kato says, looking back.
After graduating from the University of Tsukuba, Kato went to work for Daiwa Bank. At age 24, he tried to make the national team for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, but finished in eighth place at the final domestic selection meet. He had placed fourth in the previous year’s national championships, but lost his Olympic spot to Yukio Iketani and Daisuke Nishikawa, who captured national media attention as Japan’s first high school students to make the Olympics in gymnastics. They went on to help Japan win team bronze medals at the Seoul and Barcelona Olympics.
“Japan was struggling, and the industry was looking for fresh faces,” Kato says about the selection.
Despite not being chosen for the Olympic team, Kato says he felt no inferiority complex. He had pride in the fact that at the 1989 world championships he became the first man to land a moonsault off the parallel bars, a trick that was later named after him.
When Japan’s bubble economy collapsed, the corporate gymnastics team that Kato belonged to was forced to shut down. But he continued engaging in gymnastics through other companies. During his years at Daiwa Bank, he negotiated directly with the bank president and asked him to build a gymnasium for the gymnastics team. That gymnasium, located in Soka, Saitama Prefecture, is now bustling with energy and talent as Konami’s main training base.
“This used to be Ryohei’s playground when he was little,” the elder Kato says, showing pride and commitment in the future of Japanese gymnastics.
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