Six weeks after the devastating Tōhoku earthquake — and on the eve of its national championships — Japan is pleading with the FIG not to take this year's world championships from Tokyo.
The 2011 World Gymnastics Championships are scheduled for Oct. 7-16 in the Japanese capital, but the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) is set to decide in May whether or not to move the event to another location because of fears of radiation.
Tsunekazu Takeda, president of the Japanese Olympic Committee, sent a letter to FIG President Bruno Grandi to ask his support in keeping the event in Japan.
"As you may already know the metropolitan government of Tokyo has not been affected from the earthquake, nor the tsunami," Takeda wrote. "Hence, it is very important for Japan to actually host a premier international event to uplift the [devastated] people, especially the young children."
The 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck March 11 off the northeast coast of Japan, spawning giant tsunami that left more than 25,000 people dead or missing. The situation was worsened by radiation leaks following explosions or accidents at multiple nuclear power plants, including a partial meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. Tests showed traces of radiation in water in both Tokyo and in the ocean.
Grandi recently gave an interview in which he stated seven countries — including France, Russia and the U.S. — already indicated they would not send their gymnasts to Japan. This year's world championships are the first step in qualification for the 2012 Olympic Games in London; any nations that sit out this year's worlds would forfeit their gymnasts' chances of competing in London.
"I would like to ask for your strong message that athletes' participation to the World Championship is vital, not only to compete but also to bring the people's hopes up and encourage them to overcome this disaster," Takeda wrote to Grandi.
France, Qatar, Russia and the United States reportedly all have offered to take the gymnastics world championships. The figure skating world championships, originally scheduled for mid-March in Tokyo, instead begin Sunday in Moscow.
Two Japanese stars currently living in Tokyo expressed their solidarity and confidence that the city should play host to the world's best gymnasts this fall.
Rie Tanaka (Japan) hopes to compete in front of a home crowd at this year's world championships.
2005 world all-around champion Hiroyuki Tomita, now a coach at Juntendo University in Tokyo, said his athletes were unable to train until the gym was inspected for structural damage.
"After 10 days, we finally could start training since they didn't find any problems with it," Tomita told IG. "I felt an awful, unexpected threat of nature attacking us. And we are still living with our fear of aftershocks. But we are helping, encouraging and supporting each other to get over this disaster."
Rie Tanaka, the reigning national champion on vault and balance beam, was training at Nittaidai University in Yokohama when the earthquake struck. She said the gym was swaying back and forth, and the 100 athletes and coaches inside the gym ran outside to safety.
"I had to evacuate myself to my home city of Wakayama (in the west side of Japan) and train at my old high school gym for a week because of the radiation problem," Tanaka said. "Since then I've been training at the national training center in Tokyo because Nittaidai University has been prohibiting all club activities in the school. There is no problem working out at the national training center, which really has good a facility and nice equipment."
Tanaka, who won the Longines Prize for Elegance at the 2010 World Championships, will be at the 65th Japanese National Championships this weekend at Yoyogi National Gymnasium. The gymnastics world championships are scheduled for the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, site of the gymnastics competition at the 1964 Olympic Games.
"Fortunately the area I live in didn't get damaged as much as the Tōhoku area, but it is so heartbreaking to see all the damage, wrecks and towns flooded by tsunami," she told IG. "I am now trying to do every little thing I can do for them. By donations, saving on electricity... We have to pull together to get over this."
The 23-year-old Tanaka, a graduate student at Nittaidai, won the bronze medal in the all-around at the 2010 Asian Games. Her older brother, Kazuhito Tanaka, won medals at the 2009 and 2010 Worlds. She said the devastation has made her more grateful for gymnastics and the opportunity to represent Japan.
"This disaster reminded me that I have to thank all the people around me and to thank them that I can do gymnastics, which is my favorite thing to do in life," she said. "I think that the way to express my courage to my fans and supporters is performing at the 2011 World Championships in Tokyo. I am working very hard to make it."
Tomita, a member of Japan's gold-medal team at the 2004 Olympics, said he was grateful for the support that has poured in since the quake.
"I thank my gymnastics family from all over the world who sent us a lot of supportive messages. I really appreciate it," he said. "Japan will absolutely get over this. And I'm really looking forward to seeing all of you at the 2011 World Championships in Tokyo."
External Link: Japanese Olympic Committee Letter to Bruno Grandi