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Cycling: Nitta and Wakimoto keep Japanese Olympic dream of keirin gold alive

Cycling: Nitta and Wakimoto keep Japanese Olympic dream of keirin gold alive

Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Cycling - Track - Men's Sprint - Qualification - Izu Velodrome, Shizuoka, Japan - August 4, 2021. Yudai Nitta of Japan in action. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

IZU, Japan: When coach Frenchman Benoit Vetu began working for the Japanese Cycling Federation five years ago his brief was simple - deliver a medal in keirin at the Tokyo Olympics.

That ambition edged closer to reality on Saturday (Aug 7) when Japanese riders Yudai Nitta and Yuta Wakimoto both won their heats to move into the quarter-finals.

Their powerful rides produced the loudest cheers heard at the Izu Velodrome, where a 50 per cent capacity attendance is allowed, and should either win gold on the final day of competition on Sunday the roof might just come off.

The reason is simple.

Keirin, in which riders are paced around a track by a motorised derny for three laps to 50kmh before a sprint to the finish after three more laps, is part of the fabric of Japanese society - a 362.6 billion yen (US$3.29 billion) gambling industry.

Nitta and Wakimoto have put their professional keirin careers, and the huge salaries that come with it, on hold to chase Olympic gold - a feat that would elevate their profiles into the stratosphere.

Tasked with making that a reality is 47-year-old Vetu.

"We've been for five years, every day we come to this velodrome for this moment," Vetu told a large group of reporters, mostly Japanese, on Saturday.

"So we have no choice we have to be ready and we have to be good. And if I want to still have a job after the Olympics we have to win the medal.

"That was the main goal when I came to Japan. I had to see where we could be most competitive and where the best chance of a medal was and it had to be keirin."

Nitta and Wakimoto will have to beat some of the best sprinters in the world on Sunday if they are to reach the podium, including reigning champion Jason Kenny of Britain.

"The real fight starts tomorrow," said Vetu.

"They are both 10 years professional racers but they have put their careers apart for five years and lost a lot of money, made a lot of sacrifices. That's why I love this team."

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Source: Reuters/jt


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