By Martyn Herman and Shiho Tanaka
IZU, Japan (Reuters) – WhenFederation five years ago, his brief was simple — deliver a medal in the keirin at the Tokyo Olympics. That ambition to reality on Saturday when Japanese riders Yudai Nitta and Yuta Wakimoto won their heats to power into the quarter-finals.
Their storming finishes provoked the loudest cheers heard at the Izu Velodrome. A 50% capacity attendance is allowed all week, and should eitherof competition on Sunday; the roof might blow off.
The reason is simple.
Keirin, in which riders are paced around a track by a motorized derny for three laps to 50km before a sprint to theafter three more laps at speeds of 70km, is part of the fabric of Japanese society — an estimated 362.6 billion yen ($3.29 billion) gambling industry.
Nitta and Wakimoto are professional keirin racers, havingschool. Still, they have put their big salaries on hold to chase — a feat that would elevate their profiles into the stratosphere.
Tasked with making that a reality is 47-year-old Vertu, who admits not making it happen will cost him his job. “We’ve been for five years; every day, weto this velodrome for this moment,” Vertu told a large group of reporters, mainly Japanese, on Saturday.
“So we have no choice. We have to be ready, and we have to be good. And if I want to have a job after the Olympics still, we have to win the medal! “That was the main goal when I came to Japan. I had to see where we could be most competitive and where the best chance of a medal was, and it had to be keirin.”
Nitta and Wakimoto will have to beat some of the best sprinters in the world on Sunday if they are to reach the podium, including reigning championof Britain. “The real fight starts tomorrow,” said Vertu.
“They are both tena lot of money, and made a lot of sacrifices. That’s why I love this team.” Since keirin was introduced to the in 2000, Japan has managed one medal — Kiyofumi Nagai’s bronze in 2008.
Wakimoto, 32, took silver at last year’s world championships and said he would fight with everything he has on Sunday to give thea thrilling climax. And with the crowd roaring them on, anything is possible. “I heard cheers that I had never experienced before,” an emotional Nitta said.
“I failed in the sprint, so I didn’t spare myself today and stepped on the pedals with the feeling of confronting the pain in my legs after the race.” One interested observer was Japaneseand Japan’s most outstanding professional keirin racer.
“Japan has been aiming for a medal at keirin, and the level of the riders has risen to the point where they can finally see it,” he told reporters in Izu. “They must compete tomorrow with confidence and power.”
($1 = 110.2500 yen)
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Ed Osmond)