Video clips of daring tricks and an emotional victory last year have made snowboarder Kazuhiro Kokubo a celebrity athlete overseas.
But in Japan, he remains largely known as the Olympian whose sloppy manners embarrassed his home country on the international stage.
Kokubo, 23, has never been a conventional athlete.
At the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Kokubo came under harsh criticism from the Japanese media and the public for wearing the official Team Japan uniform in an overly casual way. He placed a disappointing eighth in the men’s half-pipe event at the Games.
Since then, the snowboarder known affectionately as “Kazu” outside Japan has been winning praise on the global circuit.
Kokubo added to his reputation when he appeared in the DVD “Standing Sideways,” released by U.S. snowboard maker Burton Snowboards Inc. last fall. The DVD, released every autumn, features the world’s top professional snowboarders.
Kokubo was featured in the opening cut, sliding down a steep mountain at risk of avalanche and showing off major jumps and sharp spins that could shock even the most hardcore fans.
“This is the first time a Japanese snowboarder has been featured in the opening cut,” said Koji Ishihara, a public relations officer at Burton. “This is proof that Kazu has been acknowledged for his versatility to jump through manmade bumps as well as in nature.”
Kokubo has also appeared on the cover of numerous American and European snowboarding magazines.
He doesn’t hide his satisfaction with the DVD.
“I’ve finally been approved by the world,” he said in an interview with The Asahi Shimbun. “They even flew me to the mountaintop by helicopter and let me snowboard anyway I want. I’m happy.”
Last year, Kokubo won the half-pipe event at the U.S. Open for the second consecutive year despite tough competition against Olympic medalists. The final was held the day after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami devastated northeastern Japan.
During his winning run, Kokubo raised both hands in the air to acknowledge the thousands who perished in the disaster. That scene moved the crowds and generated numerous comments on video-sharing sites.
“I read about the quake the day before on the Internet. I was really shocked,” he said. “But all I could do was snowboard. During my winning run, my thoughts were with Japan.”
However, most media outlets in Japan were so focused on covering the huge disaster that Kokubo’s victory received scant mention.
The athlete now trains in San Clemente, California. He spends just two months a year in his home in Hokkaido, where his wife and two dogs await his return.
When he returned to Japan temporarily in May 2011, he helped save dogs in Minami-Soma, Fukushima Prefecture--one of many cities devastated by the quake--with members of the Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue and Support.
“When I was in the U.S., I learned online that there was little support for dogs in disaster areas. I have pet dogs, too, so I wanted to help out,” he said.
Asked how he felt about failing to land the double cork during the Vancouver Olympics, costing him a medal, Kokubo said: “It’s only a slight difference that separates medalists and other competitors. I guess I lacked true skills. It’s really only a slight difference.”
He also shrugged off the harsh criticism he received for wearing the Team Japan uniform with his pants sagging below his hips and shirt hanging out.
“That’s in the past. I don’t have any bad memories. But if you ask me if the Olympics is my ultimate goal, hmm … . The Olympics is not the biggest goal for snowboarders. It’s just one event to look forward to in life,” he said.
Kokubo said he can “definitely” develop new and improved skills and moves.
At last year’s U.S. Open, he successfully landed the massive double cork, which he flubbed in Vancouver.
But medals are not enough for him. “I want people to look at elements other than technical difficulty. It’s also important to attract people with the overall style and the order in which you showcase your tricks.”
Asked about the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Kokubo said: “I’d like to compete at the Olympics if I feel motivated at the time. The Olympics was fun.”
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