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Masahiko Harada – From Meltdown to Marvelous

Masahiko Harada – From Meltdown to Marvelous

One of the obvious drawbacks to competing in team sports is that a team is only as strong as its weakest link. Of course, when that weak link becomes obvious, the individual is often made a sporting pariah, blamed for the entire loss.

Such was the case with Masahiko Harada, whose poor Olympic showing in the finals of the Lillehammer Games knocked the Japanese team from a surefire gold medal to a 2nd place silver.

While most would be thrilled with a silver, it was the fashion in which Japan lost that made Harada the villain. He was able to turn that image around in 1998, however, performing brilliantly in front of his home nation.

Masahiko Harada

Born May 9, 1968 in Kamikawa, Hokkaido, Japan, Masahiko “Happy” Harada is a ski jumper who stood proudly as one of the greatest in Japan’s storied history, and seemingly the strongest spoke in the national team’s wheel heading into the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer.

As an individual competitor, Harada was a force to be reckoned with. Entering the ’94 Games, Masahiko had won gold in the 1993 World Championships in Falun. He was expected to be the Japanese team’s biggest weapon for competition, and in training and in qualifying, he did not disappoint.

Happy Harada’s 1998 Redemption Tour

Once in Lillehammer, the Japanese team was dominating the competition. They easily qualified and were en route to an easy gold medal in the finals of the ski jump competition. As the team’s anchor position, Harada only needed to jump 105 meters to secure a victory for Japan. Having cleared 122 meters in his previous jump, the celebration started before Harada even took his turn. It was a foregone conclusion; the Japanese wins the gold medal in Lillehammer. However, fate had other plans, and Harada unhappily launched an abysmal 98 meters, which allowed the Germans to win the gold. Japan dropped to silver.

The culture of Japan is one of immense pride. Harada was not only considered single-handedly responsible for the team’s loss by the outside world, but he himself carried that burden and pointed the finger only at his failings. He vowed to redeem himself and his team in the 1998 Games, and the serendipitous part was that the Games would be held in Nagano, Japan, giving Harada the opportunity to make up for past failings in front of his home nation.

In Japan, however, things started to play out even worse than at Lillehammer. Though it was 4 years later, history was repeating itself. With Japan in 1st place and needing a solid jump from Harada, he only managed a jump of 79.5 meters, one of the worst of his entire career. This knocked Japan all the way down to 4th place, well out of medal contention.

Harada wasn’t the anchor this year, but he was sure weighing his team down. He had one final opportunity to redeem himself. His second jump, if even moderately successful, would at least allow Japan to compete for a medal.

With Harada’s second jump, he launched beautifully and glided through the air for what seemed like forever. When he landed, it was announced that he had tied the previous Olympic record of 137 meters. This was by far the best jump of Harada’s career, nearly 60 meters better than his previous jump. It instantly catapulted the Japanese team into 1st position, only needing a solid jump from the anchor, Kazuyoshi Funaki, to seal the deal.

Funaki’s jump was a solid 125 meters, clinching the gold medal for the team. In front of his home nation and the world, Harada had redeemed himself in brilliant fashion. To top the Games off, he even won an individual bronze medal in the large hill race. Of all the great stories in Japan that year, Happy Harada’s was undoubtedly the biggest.

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