Winter Olympics: Japan in raptures as Harada sheds his burden

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A NATION rejoiced here yesterday as Japan's ski jumpers secured the team gold medal which had so traumatically eluded them four years earlier. But most of all, it rejoiced for the man whose last-jump failure at the 1994 Games had cost his country dear, Masahiko Harada.

After the title had been secured by Japan's last jumper, Kazuyoshi Funaki, who already had a silver and a gold respectively from the individual 90m and 120m hill competitions, Harada and his two younger team-mates ran over to their colleague like madmen before diving down into the snow alongside him to celebrate.

A few moments later, as the realisation of what had occurred sank in, Harada's expressive face contorted into tears and his shoulders sagged, the burden of four years slipping from them.

Harada's performance on the day reflected his career - polarised between triumph and disaster. In the first of his two jumps, the 29-year-old world champion reduced the Rising Sun-waving multitude crammed into the Hakuba venue to silence as he dropped down at 79.50m. The sixth worst of the 104 jumps taken in the 13 competition.

Six days earlier, Harada had produced a similar effect on the home crowd with the last jump of the individual 90m hill competition. Leading the first-jump standings, he had needed only to reach within four metres of his first effort to secure the gold. He failed, and finished fifth.

Four days after that, he had shown the same bewildering inconsistency on the 120m hill, performing badly but recovering to take the individual bronze with the biggest leap of the day.

After the first round of jumps yesterday, Japan were down in fourth place and Harada was faced with carrying a lifelong reputation as a choker. But outstanding efforts from the two other jumpers, Hiroya Saito and Takanobu Okabe, who produced a 137m leap, recovered the position. What could Harada do for his Olympic finale?

He admitted afterwards that memories of Lillehammer four years earlier came to mind. "To be honest, I was very concerned that the same thing would happen again after my first jump," he said.

Adjusting his goggles at the top of the ramp, he slid down to his destiny - and soared out to 137m, the joint furthest jump of the day. Pandemonium. And when Funaki held the whole thing together with a jump of 125m, Japan's day of triumph was complete.

The scenes in the aftermath of victory will be remembered here as English people cherish the memory of the 1966 World Cup jubilation. Later, an ecstatic crowd of 15,000 spectators packed into Nagano's Central Square to see the quartet presented with their medals.