Olympic Badminton: Japan levels up with sights set on 5 golds... and cash

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CHOFU, JAPAN - JULY 26: Yuta Watanabe(right) and Arisa Higashino of Team Japan compete against Praveen Jordan and Melati Daeva Oktavianti of Team Indonesia during a Mixed Doubles Group C match on day three of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Musashino Forest Sport Plaza on July 26, 2021 in Chofu, Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
CHOFU, JAPAN - JULY 26: Yuta Watanabe(right) and Arisa Higashino of Team Japan compete against Praveen Jordan and Melati Daeva Oktavianti of Team Indonesia during a Mixed Doubles Group C match on day three of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Musashino Forest Sport Plaza on July 26, 2021 in Chofu, Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

In the past, the medal count for badminton was dominated by five countries – China, South Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia and Denmark – while Japan fell far behind. 

However, since 2004, after almost 10 years of coaching by Park Joo Bong, the Men’s and Mixed Doubles legend from South Korea, Japan has stepped up its game with strong performances and results in the five categories of singles and doubles. 

With a home ground advantage and attractive bonuses dangled by the Nippon Badminton Association, Japan is strongly poised to win all five golds at the Tokyo Games.

Badminton was an exhibition sport in the 1988 Seoul Olympics and became official only in the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. In the past seven Olympics, only six countries have won gold medals. 

China has dominated the game with a stunning record of 18 gold medals. In the 2012 London Olympic Games, China made history by sweeping all five gold medals. 

Second and third in terms of gold medals is Indonesia with seven and South Korea with six, while Denmark, Spain and Japan have won one each. Ayaka Takahashi and Misaki Matsutomo were the first Japanese badminton players to make history winning the championship in the doubles category in the 2016 Rio Olympics. But since then, Matsutomo has retired and the quest for the title has been passed down to their four (two pairs) successors.

Cash prize motivation

To encourage the national Olympians in Tokyo, Kinji Zeniya, Secretary-General of the Nippon Badminton Association, has shared – in media reports – that there will be cash bonuses, with 10 million yen (about S$121,300) for the gold medallists, five million yen (S$60,650) for silver and three million yen (S$36,400) for bronze. He also made it clear that the team's overall goal is to win medals in all five categories, three of which should be gold medals.

Two-time world champion, Kento Momota, remains the favourite for the Japanese to claim the top spot. Despite being slapped with a ban in the 2016 Rio Olympics for gambling, Momota has made a strong comeback, winning almost all title matches. 

Although he had a car accident in Malaysia last January, the one-year delay brought on by the pandemic has bought time for him to recover and readjust. Despite being knocked out in the quarter-finals of the All England Open in March this year, the world No. 1 has made an impressive return and is expected to be in top form at the Games. 

Japan is also aiming for first place in the women’s singles. Led by Nozomi Okuhara and Akane Yamaguchi, the Japanese side have defeated strong opponents like Tai Tsu-yin (Chinese Taipei), Chen Yufei (China) and P.V. Sindhu (India). 

The Japanese ladies have shown both competence and consistency. Okuhara, the Rio Olympics’ Bronze medallist and 2017 world champion who secured her second All England Open title this March, is a formidable foe. Yuki Fukushima/Sayaka Hirota and Mayu Matsumoto/Wakana Nagahara, frequent finalists in world championships, are set to keep Japan in major contention for the Women's Doubles title.

Mixed doubles hopes

As for the rest of the categories, the 24-year-old upstart, Yuta Watanabe, has made noticeable improvements, winning two All England Open gold medals in a row with his partner Hiroyuki Endo. Hot favourites to win the Men’s Doubles, the two Japanese males have also successfully defeated the invincible Indonesian Minions – Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo/Marcus Fernaldi Gideon. 

Watanabe is also pairing up with Arisa Higashino for the mixed doubles title, hoping to make history as only the third player after Kim Dong Moon of South Korea and Zhang Nan of China to win both the men’s doubles and mixed doubles titles.

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Tokyo Olympics Badminton Competitions

When: 24 July to 2 August

Events: Men/Women’s Singles, Doubles and Mixed Doubles

Number of gold medals: 5

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