Sapporo Opened the Door to Winter Sport in Asia

(ATR) Japan sports legends say the 1972 Winter Olympics made this week's Asian Winter Games possible.

SAPPORO, JAPAN - FEBRUARY 6:  Japanese Yukio Kasaya soars in the air during the 70m ski jumping competition 06 February 1972 in Sapporo (Japan) at the Winter Olympic Games. Kasaya won the gold medal in front of his teammates Akitsugu Konno and Seiji Aochi.  (Photo credit should read STAFF/AFP/Getty Images)
SAPPORO, JAPAN - FEBRUARY 6: Japanese Yukio Kasaya soars in the air during the 70m ski jumping competition 06 February 1972 in Sapporo (Japan) at the Winter Olympic Games. Kasaya won the gold medal in front of his teammates Akitsugu Konno and Seiji Aochi. (Photo credit should read STAFF/AFP/Getty Images)

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(ATR) The snow covered slopes and ice arenas of Sapporo have bustled with competition this week, made possible by a Winter Olympics held a half century ago.

The 1972 Winter Olympics forever changed the northern Japanese city. The XI Olympic Winter Games were the first held in Asia, opening a new era and region for winter sports.

Two of Japan’s winter sport legends – Alpine skier Chiharu Igaya and ski jumper Akitsugu Konno – tell Around the Rings those Games were groundbreaking.

Igaya, 86, became Japan’s first and only Olympic Alpine skiing medalist, winning a silver medal in slalom at the 1956 Cortina d’Ampezzo Games. He was an IOC member from 1982 to 2012 and now remains an honorary member.

He competed in three Olympics before ending up in Sapporo as a personal assistant to IOC president Avery Brundage during the 1972 Games.

"Of course it was very different than the 1964 Tokyo Summer Games," Igaya told ATR. "Sapporo was the second Games for Japan and the Japanese people were so proud of being host of both the Summer and Winter Games.

"At that time, the weather was just as crazy as it is these days without enough snow so the organizers has quite a bit of difficulty, but they did it well," Igaya said. "Many competitors told me that they were very happy."

Konno was part of the Japanese trio, along with Yukio Kasaya and Seiji Aochi, who thrilled the host nation by sweeping the medals in the 70-meter ski jumping event in 1972. Kasaya’s victory gave Japan its first gold medal in Winter Olympic history.

"I remember a lot – that three guys won medals is the most memorable," Konno told ATR, speaking at the Okurayama Ski Jumping Stadium, a 1972 venue. "I had not been expected to win a medal and I had just wanted to be within the top six. No pressure was on my back.

"The reason why I won the silver medal was because I was blessed with good conditions. My success encouraged young Japanese to become jumpers, which pleases me," Konno said, on a night that Japan soared to gold and silver medals.

"My daily life did not change much, I was an amateur, not a professional," said Konno, who returned to work as a banker following his Olympic success.

Igaya witnessed the inspiring Japanese medal sweep at the Miyanomori Ski Jump Stadium.

"We expected that they would do well, but not 1-2-3-4, so that was a pleasant surprise," Igaya recalled.

Konno, 72, who still resides in Hokkaido today, said the ’72 Games had a long-lasting effect on what is Japan’s fourth largest city.

"Sapporo 1972 changed the city significantly – infrastructure,for example subways and roads were developed," Konno said.

The development of new infrastructure in the lead-up to the Games proved to be a huge boon for the Sapporo economy. The Japanese national government had invested some $500 million in upgrades, including a new subway.

Games' organizers turned a healthy profit in part because they arranged a record $8.47 million for broadcast rights.

Ski areas on Hokkaido – including Mount Teine, where giant slalom and slalom races were held in ’72 – became popular destinations for skiers outside of Japan. The region once unknown is now world famous for its powder snow.

"Because of the northern location, very cold air comes in and with the humidity, Hokkaido can enjoy very nice powder snow," said Igaya, who still skis regularly and is currently president of the Japanese Para-ski Association.

Seven of the 12 venues used at the Asian Winter Gamesthis week were also the setting for Olympic events in 1972. Sapporo also staged the first two editions of the AWG in 1986 and 1990. The arenas have held up well over time.

The 1972 Olympics were opened by Emperor Showa on Feb. 3, at Makomanai Stadium, the figure skating and closing ceremony venue this week. More than 1,000 athletes from 35 nations competed in 35 medal events across 10 disciplines in six sports.

Controversy erupted three days before the Sapporo Games as IOC president Brundage threatened to disqualify 40 alpine skiers who received endorsement deals and were deemed as professionals by the IOC leader. Austrian Karl Schranz – who received more than $50,000 per year from ski manufacturers – was banned by Brundage.

The Games were also the last where a skier won a gold medal racing on all-wooden skis. Since Sapporo, competitors have used skis made mostly of fiberglass synthetics. Swiss Bernhard Russi was the Olympic downhill champion at Mt. Eniwa, while his teammate Marie-Theres Nadig won gold and silver medals.

Canada refused to send an ice hockey team, maintaining that professional ice hockey players from Communist nations were allowed to compete without restriction. The Soviet ‘Red Machine’ led by star forward Valery Kharlamov won the gold medal.

The Soviet Union led the medals table with 16, including eight gold. East Germany was second with 14 medals and Switzerland third with 10.

Japan’s lone three medals came from Konno and his two teammates, a day that will be remembered as arguably the greatest in Japanese Winter Olympic lore.

Igaya and Konno said they would like to witness the Winter Olympics return to Sapporo, whether for 2026 or beyond.

"If we can provide the stage for competitors from five continents to get to know each other and expand friendships and contribute to the Olympic movement, than we feel really proud of Sapporo to host the Games," Igaya says.

Written and reported in Sapporo by Brian Pinelli and Hironori Hashimoto.

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