Japan at the 2018 Winter Olympics
Japan is an absolute powerhouse in the international contest scene and with the introduction of Kazuhiro Kokubo in 2003 at the US Open in Stratton, Vermont, they've been a force to be reckoned with ever since. At the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, they have a handful of contenders with at least a top five potential in slopestyle and halfpipe in the men's and women's field. Now there is a little "situation" with Japan's preeminent favorite in slopestyle and big air, Yuki Kadono, but we'll get into that. Regardless, with or without Yuki, Japan has a very good chance to walk away from the 2018 Winter Games with a medal.
According to Noriko Ozawa of the Ski Association of Japan (SAJ), the SAJ will nominate individuals to the Japanese Olympic teams in the middle of January, 2018 based on the possibility to win and/or place well at the 2018 PyeongChang Games, but they have to have met the following requirements:
—At least one top eight result from the 2016—2018 seasons
—At least two top ten results from the 2016—2018 seasons
—At least three top twelve results from the 2016—2018 season
Simple enough, yeah? Well, we'll have to wait and see who they choose from their gigantic field of talent to represent team Japan in South Korea.
Favorites in Slope and Big Air
Now this is where it gets a little "controversial." Rumors have been swirling about that Yuki Kadono has been taken out of the running for any Olympic qualification process due to a code of conduct violation for team Japan, but here's the thing: Yuki is far and away, hands-down, Japan's number one hope for a medal, and the chance of said medal being made of gold is just as good. Yuki has tricks in third gear that other riders in the field don't have in overdrive. For example, it's been said that by the time the Games come around, Yuki will probably be the first rider in history to land a quadruple cork 1980. Yes, you read that correctly. He's already put it to his feet once and it was featured on this very website (search it). If Yuki were to be on team Japan, he would be the favorite for the gold in big air. Definitely. Of note is also that he's one of the only riders in the slopestyle field to straight up beat Mark McMorris—Canada's gold medal hopeful—in slopestyle without Mark falling! So, the SAJ has some considering to do. If they want old, antiquated and archaic rules to hold Yuki back from taking the next step to snowboard superstardom or not. Our hope is definitely notched in the "not" category but we'll see what happens in a few months' time.
With a 5th place in slopestyle at 2017 US Open, young Miyabi Onitsuka is hot on the heels of some of the best female riders on the planet. She has a very strong rail game and while her jumping needs a little fine tuning, she can definitely put down a top three run in South Korea, and we would love to see Miyabi smiling atop the podium in February.
Favorites in Halfpipe
It's widely believed in the snowboard world that in the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, Ayumu Hirano got robbed of a gold medal, and while he took home the silver, many say that his amplitude and trick selection in that run was deserving of the top spot. Ayumu is a constant podium finisher, often suffering from the aforementioned heartbreak of taking 2nd place when he should've won, but he's walked away with gold before in some of the biggest competitive arenas on earth, so the question remains: will South Korea be his reckoning? He's Japan's best hope for a gold in pipe, so we'll just have to wait and see.
Taku Hiraoka is in a similar place as Ayumu in regard to where he stands at the end of any event, though he's a tad more subdued as far as exposure and coverage in the snowboard world, but Taku is one of the most explosive and spontaneous riders in the field and can seemingly come out of nowhere and end up on the podium of any event. If he lands the run that he's capable of, don't be surprised to see Taku with a Japanese flag draped over his shoulders in February.
— Burton Snowboards (@burtonsnowboard) March 4, 2017
This past winter, Raibu Katayama skyrocketed onto the world stage with an astonishing and inspiring 5th place at the US Open 2017 halfpipe event in Vail, Colorado and his introduction could not have come at a better time for team Japan. This kid is the real deal and if he makes the team, the rest of the field should be put on notice because he's quiet but is riding speaks volumes once he drops in.
Sena Tomita walked away with a 4th at the 2017 US Open women's pipe event and while the women's field in halfpipe is dominated by the likes of Kelly Clark and Chloe Kim, riders like Sena can ensure that their runs have to be absolutely perfect in order to take the gold in South Korea. Sena may not be a favorite, but everyone knows that you need to keep a watchful eye over the underdog.
Haruna Matsumoto—much like Sena Tomita—keeps the rest of the women's field on their toes. Finishing right behind Sena in the 2017 US Open women's pipe made it clear to the ladies that they need to stay on their game or team Japan could steal the show. It's going to be interesting to watch these two ladies in PyeongChang come February, that's for sure.
This kid is unreal. With a massive bag of tricks and at only 17 years of age by the time the 2018 Winter Olympics come around, Tomoki will be a staple in the contest scene for quite some time now, and while he's competed on the world stage multiple times and proven that he can hold his own against the world's best, he has yet to walk away with a big international podium. Will South Korea give Tomoki that opportunity? Only time will tell.