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|August 22, 2000||
Baseball makes Games big in JapanScott McDonald in Sydney
With professional baseball players allowed for the first time, high soccer hopes and a friendly time zone, the Sydney Summer Olympics should be a winner in Japan, officials said on Tuesday.
"I've seen a burgeoning of interest from the Japanese media with the big papers and television stations opening bureaux because of the Olympics," said Reg Gratton, manager of the media centre at the Olympic Park.
"It is basically the same time zone and there is already tremendous tourism interest in Australia," he said.
Interest has been boosted by hopes in Japan that their athletes will bounce back from a disappointing Summer Olympics four years ago, said Wakako Yuki, Sydney bureau chief for Japan's biggest newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun.
Japan's athletes won just three golds, all in judo, and 11 medals overall in Atlanta. Japanese Olympic officials have said they hope in Sydney at least to equal the judo haul and win medals in other sports such as swimming.
The Japanese women could surprise in the pool, with 100 metres backstroker Mai Nakamura, 200 metres breaststroker Masami Tanaka and Yasuko Tajima in the 400 metres individual medley all boasting the fastest times this year in their events.
Japan are expected to send about 260 athletes to the Games, which start on September 15, with interest focused on the country's baseball players since a change in rules allows professionals, Yuki said.
"Interest in baseball is high, especially because professionals are allowed to compete," she said.
Professionals were not allowed in baseball's debut as an official Olympic sport in Barcelona in 1992 and Atlanta four years ago.
Japan finished third in Barcelona and lost to powerful Cuba, who have dominated international amateur baseball for years, in the Atlanta final.
But not all the top players from Japan will be in Sydney as their teams are reluctant to release them before the end of their season in October.
The United States will also send professional players but, for the same reason, they will be from the minor leagues and not the top-rung Major Leagues.
Once daylight savings time starts in Australia later this month, Sydney will only be two hours adrift of Tokyo during the Games. That means more live primetime shows for Japan's broadcasters, which paid a record $135 million for the right to show the Games.
While baseball is the most popular sport in Japan, interest in how the soccer team does in Sydney has also increased because of the 2002 World Cup to be hosted by Japan and South Korea, Yuki said.
"There is a lot of interest because of 2002, and we think there will be 3,000 to 5,000 fans coming just for that," she said.
That includes a group of fans who plan to fly from Tokyo, see Japan play Brazil on September 20 in Brisbane, and then fly straight back after the game. They will sleep on the plane both ways.
Japan will be led by midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata, who became Asia's most expensive player ever when he moved from Perugia to AS Roma for $16 million in January.
Mail Sports Editor
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