Feature | Artistic Gymnastics

Japanese gymnast Kitazono Takeru is the real deal

The five-time Youth Olympic champion from Buenos Aires 2018 is targeting the Tokyo 2020 Games in his home country

By Scott Bregman ·

Japanese artistic gymnast Kitazono Takeru is the real deal.

In his first major international competition, the 2018 Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, he became the first athlete from Japan to win five gold medals in the same Games.

“I didn’t know. To be honest, I’m very surprised to hear that,” he said at the time, after capturing gold in the all-around, floor exercise, still rings, parallel bars, and horizontal bar. He also won a silver medal as part of the mixed nation team competition.

“I’m very happy and I think the results of my training schedule were there for all to see. I came here to win and I’m happy with what I achieved,” Kitazono said.

Happy as he might have been with his massive haul at the Youth Olympics, he was clear that translating that success into gold at his home Olympics, now scheduled for July 2021, was his target. Making that dream a reality won’t be an easy task, as the Olympic team champions from Rio gear up to defend their title in front of their compatriots with tons of talent.

“I’m looking to go out and perform the same at Tokyo 2020, and I’m going to train even harder to make that happen," he said in 2018, undeterred.

Tough competition

Kitazono’s achievements in Buenos Aires quickly drew comparisons to the great Uchimura Kohei, the back-to-back Olympic all-around champion and only man to win six-straight World all-around titles.

Nicknamed ‘Kohei No. 2,’ the Osaka native backed-up his impressive results in 2018 with three gold medals at the inaugural Junior World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Gyor, Hungary in 2019. Though he was golden individually on the pommel horse and parallel bars, in addition to gold with his teammates, he failed to win a medal in the all-around.

That’s because even though he posted the third best score during the team and all-around competition, he was beaten by both his teammates Oka Shinnosuke and Doi Ryosuke and no more than two per country are eligible for all-around medals.

His circumstances at the Junior Worlds highlight what will perhaps be the biggest challenge to his Tokyo 2020 dreams: Japan’s incredible depth in men’s artistic gymnastics, and his youth. Typically, male gymnasts often lack the strength required for events like the still rings until their early twenties.

In addition to Oka and Doi, Kitazono will have to contend with Kaya Kazuma, who won team and parallel bars bronze at the 2019 World Championships in Stuttgart, Kanigawa Wataru, Kenzo Shirai, Uchimura himself and others for what will likely be Japan’s six tickets to Tokyo 2020.

Currently, Japan has qualified a four-man team to the Games and will have the opportunity to add two more individual athletes through World Cup and continental competitions in 2021.

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Laser focused on Tokyo 2020

Despite whatever obstacles may lay ahead for Kitazono, he’s made it clear he’s up for the challenge.

During the coronavirus lockdown, he announced that he would join the prestigious gymnastics club Tokushukai next April. There, he’ll work with Olympic-champion-turned-coach Yoneda Isao.

"I felt that it was the best environment available to me as I continue to take the next steps in gymnastics,” Kitazono said. “I have been pushing myself all long at Seifu (High School) and I am not going to stray from that. I will keep working hard to achieve my goals to become an athlete everyone will look up to.”

Together, Kitazono and Yoneda, who won team gold and parallel bars bronze at the Athens 2004 Olympics, will take advantage of the extra time granted to the youngster through the postponement of the Tokyo Games. It could be a crucial period as Kitazono works to increase his strength and the difficulty value of his routines.

"The Tokyo Olympics haven't been cancelled,” he said. “That goal has always been there, and it's what I'm working for."