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Training in Japan — an eye-opener

by Marc Epprecht

In November 1977, I was one of 14 Canadian gymnasts who went to China to perform in and tour around Peking. We enjoyed an exciting and rewarding trip.

For me, the Far East experience continued after the others had gone home.

MARC EPPRECHT at work in the gym with his coach, Tom Zivic
MARC EPPRECHT à l’oeuvre avec son entraîneur Tom Zivic.

My coach, Tom Zivic, arranged for me to train for a few weeks in Tokyo. I hoped that the experience would give me an insight into the training methods of some of the world’s best gymnasts and that some of their excellence would rub off on me.

Tokyo must be the busiest city in the world. It has, not one but dozens of “downtowns” with the sidewalks always crammed with rushing people. The roar of traffic and trains is ceaseless. On every corner, canyons of neon, ten-to 15- stories high, seem to deny that there has ever been an energy crisis.

Emerging from the subway station for the first time, I was almost overwhelmed by the noise and rush of it all. During my first two days in Tokyo, I felt nothing could ever be more insane than its pace of life.

The urban agglomeration surrounding the city contains almost as many people as all of Canada. In travelling 60km from the city centre, I saw only a few acres of green space and was told that the built-up area extends considerably farther.

Juntendo University, where I was to live and train, is about two hours by subway. and train from the team hotel. During my trip, I found the reputation of Tokyo’s subways for being crowded was well earned. I could neither get a seat nor any relief from the constant bumping and squashing of other people. This is not the fault of poor service, but just another aspect of the mindboggling size of the city.

When I finally arrived at Juntendo, I was taken to meet the gymnasts who would be putting me up for the duration of my stay. There were about 40, and all but the first-year students shared ‘ two rooming houses owned by the gym club. Each paid $15 a month in rent and lived three or four to a room.

By Canadian standards, these houses are squalid, two-storey wooden shacks. Mine lacked a front door and several windows. It was now December and, with no central heating, the place was extremely cold at night. There was no hot water, no furniture other than a single low table from which we ate, and an earth toilet (inside the house) with a smell and proximity to the kitchen that quite disgusted me.

In spite of the “unusual” living conditions, my stay was made very pleasant by the warmth and friendliness of my hosts.

Juntendo is a very small university with around 1500 students. Nonetheless, it was fourth in the 1977 Japanese national gymnastics championships, and its junior team was a very impressive first.

The head coaches are Matzusaki and Ota, and the most prominent gymnasts are Kano and Kitagawa, both of whom rank in the top ten or 20 in Japan. Facilities include a tumbling platform and sunken pits for both the platform and for rings. The gym, of course, is permanent.

I was quite disappointed in the way the Japanese trained, having anticipated long and hard organized workouts. To the contrary, the gymnasts just seemed to come and go as they pleased. They trained regularly but without any plan; that is, they moved from event to event and movement to movement exactly as they pleased.

The head coaches were never there and only once in a while did an assistant coach drop by. They didn’t spot and only occasionally made comments. As a result, I found it impossible to get motivated to work hard and my trainings were generally poor.

However, I learned a great deal simply through observation. It turned out that this was the off-season competitively, and usually the gynmasts do work harder. This was their time for concentrating on new tricks.

Just about everyone was working on the Tkatchev reverse hecht on high bar (which was new then). They also spent a lot of time thinking up their own new movements, most of which are too complicated to describe here.

When I saw their unorganized training, I wondered how long Japan could expect to retain its primacy in international gymnastics, but, seeing them attempt such dangerous and exciting tricks, I was impressed by what appeared to be sheer natural talent.

For instance, sometimes they would just hop onto an apparatus and throw an incredibly daring trick without any warm-up. I believe they can do such tricks because of their explosive strength and because of the amount of research

they do before and after workouts. They gather together to study tapes and films, discuss possible techniques or new movements, and generally analyse what they did.

Leading this research seems to be the coaches’ primary function. Menial labour, such as spotting and moving equipment, is left to the first-year students, who are practically treated as slaves.

Seniors, and guests like myself, never had to ask for assistance because the freshmen were constantly alert to our slighest whims. I gathered there are unpleasant consequences for those who aren’t alert.

Such is the system in all sports in Japan and, while it may have its advantages, it does seem rather wasteful.

Another surprise — virtually all the gymnasts smoke, some up to a pack or more a day. They are also not in the least adverse to drinking. In fact, they expressed disappointment in a previous guest (Australian, no less) who couldn’t keep up with their partying.

A typical day begins at 7:00 a.m. with morning excercises, consisting of 200m sprints, long jumping, bounding, a five km run, and other sundry track and field exercises.

Once a week, this morning session runs for two hours and is so gruelling that my body was sore for the remainder of my stay. This session is run by a special coach who knows nothing about gymnastics and woe-betide anyone who doesn’t exert himself to the coach’s satisfaction.

A small breakfast and school follows morning exercises.

Workout commences at 4:00 p.m. and ends around 8:00. It’s hard to train later because the windows are kept permanently open and the gym gets very cold. A 15-minute walk home for supper, followed by a trip to the ohura (public baths), ends the day around 11:00.

This schedule soon bored me since I had no school and was training badly. My hosts tried their best to make me feel confortable and help me train, but an advanced case of culture shock had set in and I left after a week.

My overall impression of the Japanese I trained with is this: they are exceptionally talented, physically and psychologically, but I cannot believe Japan will maintain its primacy in gymnastics if the training methods at Juntendo are indicative of the nation’s as a whole.

Even considering that it was their off-season, things were just too lackadaisical to enable them to maintain their edge over the Russians and Chinese, whose developmental programs are far superior to Japan’s.

Only the very best Japanese gymnasts get any kind of financial support from the government, whereas top athletes in the USSR and China are privileged citizens, who start much younger and are installed with a philosophy of life, the main tenet being excellence for the sake of the state.

In a democratic country like Japan, it is impossible to do that because it infringes upon notions of individual freedom.

Even so, if the government took more of an interest in sponsoring its athletes and in instituting an organized developmental program, Japan could Continue as the number one power in gymnastics. For the time being at least, it is letting its lead slip away.

A third-year student in history and English at York University, Marc Epprecht was Athlete of the Year at York and was CIA U gymnastics champion in 1977 and 1978.