On 6 February 1972, Yukio Kasaya became Japan’s first ever champion at the Olympic Winter Games, with a comfortable victory in the normal hill event at the Miyanomori Ski Jump Stadium in Sapporo. For a country which, until that point, could boast only one winter medal, in Alpine skiing, this proved to be a historic day, as Akitsugu Konno and Seiji Aochi joined their compatriot on the podium for a remarkable triple success.
It would be an understatement to say that the people of Hokkaidō (the northern Japanese island where Sapporo is located), not to mention the country as a whole, were expecting great things of the ski jumpers, all of whom were from the region, as they prepared to take part in the K70 competition on the normal hill at the Miyanomori Ski Jump Stadium on 6 February 1972. Their names were Yukio Kasaya, Akitsugu Konno, Seiji Aochi and Takashi Fujisawa. Expectations were even higher given that, the previous day, the Japanese speed skaters had been disappointing in the 500m, in which they failed to get near the podium.
Japan had won only one medal at the Winter Games prior to Sapporo, in Cortina d’Ampezzo in 1956, when Alpine skier Chiharu Igaya pulled off a remarkable feat by moving up from sixth in the second slalom run to clinch the silver medal behind Austria’s Toni Sailer. But this time round, there was every chance that things could go differently. The four ski jumpers were among the best in the world, and Kasaya was one of the hot favourites. Having already competed at Innsbruck 1964 and Grenoble 1968 without setting the tournaments alight, he went into his third Games in a much stronger position on the international stage.
Kasaya, 28 in Sapporo (he was born on 17 August 1943 in Yoichi, Hokkaidō), claimed his first international medal in 1970 after finishing second in the normal hill event at the World Championships in Vysoké Tatry (Czechoslovakia). And in the 1971-1972 winter season, in the lead-up to the Sapporo Games, Kasaya won the first three jumping events at the prestigious Four Hills Tournament, in Oberstdorf, Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Innsbruck. Although he looked set to become the first Japanese ski jumper to win the famous competition, he decided to return home with his team so that he could better prepare for the Olympics. He was therefore absent from the event in Bischofshofen, which was won by Ingolf Mork, a victory that saw the Norwegian win the entire tournament.
Kasaya soars to victory
On the fourth day of the XI Olympic Winter Games, a huge crowd gathered at the foot of the hill at Miyanomori, in the mountains just outside Sapporo. There was enormous pressure on the shoulders of the Japanese ski jumpers, Kasaya in particular, but this only served to fuel their determination. In the event, in which the technique at the time was for athletes to place their arms by their sides with their skis parallel to one another (as opposed to the V-style technique used today), Kasaya completed the best jump of the competition in the first round, storming into the lead with 84.0m. Aochi was close behind with 83.5m, followed by Konno with 82.5m and Fujisawa with 81.0m: the top four positions were occupied by Japanese jumpers going into the second round.
Breathing down their necks were Sweden’s Rolf Nordgren and 19-year-old Pole Wojciech Fortuna, both of whom recorded jumps of over 80m. Mork, the winner of the Four Hills Tournament, was slightly further adrift with 78.0m.
The tension cranked up a notch. Tens of thousands of spectators at the venue, and millions of Japanese watching at home on TV, collectively held their breath. Kasaya, wearing the no. 50 bib, kept his cool and set off on his second jump. He hurtled down the hill, took off and managed a leap of 79.0m – once again, the best attempt of the round, in a field of 56 athletes. To cheers from the crowd, he went on to obtain a score of 244.2 and secure victory by a margin of 10 points to become the first Japanese gold medallist at the Olympic Winter Games.
A historic clean sweep
But that was by no means the end of it. Konno also completed a jump of 79.0m but scored lower for jumping style. Nevertheless, his 234.8 points saw him move up a place to take silver. Aochi, whose second jump of 77.5m took him to 220.5 points, completed a spectacular Japanese clean sweep, the country’s very first Olympic medals in ski jumping. Ultimately, it was Fujisawa who let the pressure get the better of him, finishing 23rd after a disappointing jump of 68.0m. Up until that point, only Norway had managed a podium clean sweep in ski jumping, at Lake Placid 1932 and St Moritz 1948, and no nation has repeated the exploit since Japan’s success in Sapporo.
Mork had to settle for fourth place, while teenager Fortuna finished sixth. The Pole would, however, go on to write his name into the history books mere days later by winning the large hill event, becoming his country’s first ever gold medallist at the Olympic Winter Games.
After their historic one-two-three finish, the Japanese ski jumpers became national heroes. They earned the nickname “Hinomaru hikōtai” (the Rising Sun Squadron), and a stamp was issued in Kasaya’s honour. Kasaya returned to the Olympic stage in 1976 in Innsbruck and placed 16th in the normal hill and 17th in the large hill. He had the honour of carrying the Olympic flag during the Opening Ceremony of the Nagano Winter Games in 1998.
A source of inspiration for future generations
The “Hinomaru hikōtai” inspired the next generation of Japanese ski jumpers, who went on to excel on the Olympic stage. Athletes like Kazuyoshi Funaki, an individual large hill gold medallist and a member of the four-man crew who won the team event in an incredible atmosphere at Nagano 1998. Or Noriaki Kasai, who was born in 1972 in Hokkaidō and grew up hearing about Japan’s legendary triple success, and who competed in eight editions of the Winter Games, winning silver in the team large hill at Lillehammer 1994 and in the individual event in Sochi 20 years later.
Funaki, Kasai and the gold-medal-winning team from Nagano 1998 in turn inspired the current generation of champions, including Ryoyu Kobayashi, who swept the board in the 2018-2019 season (winning the Four Hills Tournament, along with the World Cup overall title and the ski flying title), and the female Japanese ski jumpers who rank among the best in the world season after season. Japan now has a strong tradition in ski jumping, thanks in no small part to the heroes of 1972 who made their mark on history.