Eight games and counting for ageless Kasai
No athlete has appeared at more Olympic Winter Games than Noriaki Kasai. The veteran Japanese ski jumper was 45 when he made his eighth consecutive Olympic appearance, at PyeongChang 2018, 26 years on from his debut at Albertville 1992. The owner of three medals in all, won at Lillehammer 1994 and Sochi 2014, he has yet to collect gold, an objective he is determined to continue pursuing.
Born under an Olympic star
Kasai was born on the Japanese island of Hokkaido in 1972, the year that the city of Sapporo, just a few dozen kilometres from the Kasai family home, welcomed the Olympic Winter Games. That year saw the Japanese trio of Yukio Kasaya, Akitsugu Konno and Seiji Aochi sweep the medals in the normal hill, providing a sign of where Kasai’s destiny lay perhaps.
Kasai demonstrated a talent for sport from a young age, first trying his hand at track and field and excelling in the 10,000m. Then, at the age of nine, he ventured onto the local ski jumping hill for the first time and never looked back.
The Japanese competed at his first World Championships in Lahti (FIN) in February 1989, and made his debut on the FIS World Cup circuit at Thunder Bay (CAN) in December the same year. By the end of the 2017/18 season, Kasai had contested no fewer than 13 World Championships (winning seven medals – two individual and five team), made 543 World Cup starts (for a total of 17 wins and 63 top-three finishes), and graced 21 Olympic events across eight Winter Games.
He enjoyed his finest hour in March 1992, when he was crowned world champion on the K180 hill at Harrachow (CZE). Prior to Sochi 2014, his greatest Olympic moment had come at Lillehammer in 1994, where, together with Jinya Nishikata, Takanobu Okabe and Masahiko Harada, he helped Japan clinch silver in the K120 team event, following a dazzling duel with Germany that went down to the wire.
Master of reinvention
Up until 1994, Kasai employed a dangerous “V” style jumping technique, leaning so far forward that his skis were actually behind his ears, which led to him being nicknamed “Dumbo.”
Rule changes were then introduced, with the bindings being moved towards the middle of the ski, reducing the front section of the ski to 57 percent of its total length. It took the Japanese jumper several seasons to adapt to this change and re-establish himself as a major contender.
Games no.7 in Sochi
Kasai tuned up for Sochi 2014 by becoming the oldest ever winner of an FIS ski jumping event at the age of 41 and seven months, on the HS200 hill at Tauplitz-Bad Mitterndorf (AUT). When his seventh consecutive Olympic Games came around in Russia, Kasai waged an epic duel on the large hill against the in-form Kamil Stoch of Poland.
Despite producing two huge jumps of 139m and 133.5m, the Japanese jumper had to settle for a second career silver, 20 years after the first, finishing 1.3 points adrift of the Pole. He was not finished yet though. The following week he joined up with Daiki Ito, Reruhi Shimizu and Taku Takeuchi to help Japan claim bronze in the team event, behind Austria and Germany, and complete his most successful Winter Games to date.
When asked what drives him to keep on competing well into his 40s, Kasai replied: “Because I haven’t won [Olympic] gold yet.” His thirst for success unquenched, the Japanese flyer scored his 17th career win on the HS142 hill in Ruka (FIN) in November 2014, and then won FIS World Championship bronze with Sara Takanashi, Yuki Ito and Taku Takeuchi in the mixed team event in Falun (SWE) the following year. Seven top-three finishes came Kasai’s way in the 2015/16 World Cup season, during which he appeared in his 500th event. Contemplating that landmark achievement, he said: “I’ve been competing in the World Cup ever since I was 16 years old. That's 27 years now. When I turned 40 it was my intention to continue jumping until I'm 50. This would now mean seven more years.
“Right now I feel fit enough to implement this plan. 500 is a nice number, but my favourite number is six. I want to reach 600 starts, so I consider the 500 as an intermediate mark. It's not the end. If I hold the record for the most starts, it might just as well be a record that nobody can ever beat.”
The veteran Japanese jumper enjoyed a fine 2016/17 season. Pulling out superb jumps of 239.5m and 241.5m, he took second place behind reigning double Olympic champion Stoch at the all-new Raw Air competition on the HS225 hill in Vikersund (NOR) on 19 March. A week later, he signed off for the season with a third place in Planica (SLO), his 63rd podium finish.
“My current goal is to win the gold medal at PyeongChang and I want to achieve it in front of my family,” he said at the time. “When I reached 40, I decided I would call it quits when I turn 50. But now Sapporo, my birthplace, is bidding for the 2026 Games. I will be almost 54 by that time, but it is too big a chance to give up.”
And on he goes
Joined by his wife Reina, his two-year old daughter Rino and his older sister at his eighth Games, Kasai carried his country’s flag at the Opening Ceremony. After placing 21st in the normal hill, he came in 33rd in the large, with a gust of wind spoiling his first jump. Then came a creditable fifth place in the team competition with Taku Takeuchi, Daiki Ito and Ryoyu Kobayashi, who had yet to be born or were still at kindergarten when Kasai made his international debut.
The evergreen Kasai left PyeongChang 2018 saying that he still felt like a 20-year-old and was aiming for a scarcely believable 10 Olympic appearances, hopeful that gold may yet come his way at Beijing 2022 or even in 2026.