Lausanne, Switzerland, August 20, 2015 – Japan has been home to the FIVB Volleyball World Cup since 1977 and Team Manager Yuko Arakida, an Olympic champion with Japan in 1976, knows just how important volleyball is in her country. In an exclusive interview, Arakida speaks about this year’s World Cup, her country’s hopes of victory, and about how volleyball has changed over the last 40 years.
Japan and volleyball enjoy a special relationship. Could you describe the importance of the sport in your home country?
Yuko Arakida: Volleyball was inaugurated as an Olympic sport at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 1964. Japan won gold and 66.8 per cent of television viewers tuned into the final against the Soviet Union. That final defined an era and volleyball, in particular Mama-san (housewife) volleyball, has consistently grown in popularity. For a long time, baseball was the sport for boys and volleyball the sport for girls. These days, the range of sports available to youngsters has increased to include tennis, basketball and football etc. Despite that, volleyball remains popular and according to a survey, big FIVB events like the World Cup are followed by large numbers of girls joining volleyball clubs – the national team players also have many fans.
Do the team enjoy playing tournaments at home, or is it more pressure?
Arakida: To play volleyball and hear the cheers of our fans is fantastic and very rewarding. Of course, competing at home brings lots of pressure. However, the important point is that we can marshal this pressure into mental toughness. I also keep telling the players that they should be role models for young players for their skills but also for their attitude towards the game.
What is your life like on a daily basis? Do people know you and stop to talk with you?
Arakida: I was involved in the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic bidding campaign for a few years. After Tokyo’s victory, many people I had never met before thanked me for our efforts. That was a big surprise! As a volleyball player? Yes, my generation still remember our time and greet me in public.
How satisfied are you with the performance of the team this season?
Arakida: Some key players retired from the team due to injuries at the beginning of the season. That was unexpected and was something we had not prepared. However, thanks to positive thinking and the staff and players’ never-say-die attitude, we have slowly but surely made progress.
How important is the World Cup for your team this year? How have you prepared?
Arakida: The World Cup in 2011 was unforgettable. Many people went missing after the unprecedented disaster which hit the country in March 2011, which killed 15000 people. We did not know if we would be allowed to play sport in these circumstances. The people in the affected areas, however, supported us up by saying “ Win a medal in London”.
We promised to play the World Cup for the people in the affected areas and do our utmost to cheer up our people. Unfortunately, we finished in fourth position and did not secure a berth for the Olympic Games in London. On the one hand, the setback caused us considerable humiliation; on the other hand, we gained in confidence in the knowledge that even the smallest team in the world was in with a good chance of victory.
The season before the Olympics will be a very tough one and we are determined to secure a berth at next summer’s Olympics at the World Cup this year. In order to be the best, we need to do something better than anyone else, e.g. power, high blocking, have the world’s No.1 spiker etc. Unfortunately we do not have any of these. So we are trying to develop “the best teamwork in the world”, with hard work. Each player has been trying to develop a higher level of skill and mental toughness in order to increase the level of our teamwork.
Do you think your team will win one of the two Olympic tickets?
Arakida: I think we can win a ticket. The key will be retaining physical and mental stamina throughout the competition.
Who are the favourites at the World Cup? Could you describe the strengths of your main rivals USA, China and Russia?
Arakida: According to the recent results of the FIVB Volleyball World Grand Prix, China and USA are in a league of their own. USA have an abundance of talented and experienced players and their performances are very consistent. China have many young, promising and tall players. Also, their physical strength has rapidly improved.
What are your main goals over the next two years?
Arakida: The goal of our team next year will be to improve on our bronze medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Are the Olympics already the big topic in the team and Japan’s goal for 2016?
Arakida: Yes, of course. We have been training and dreaming of standing on the podium in Rio. This is a very important source of motivation and drive for the players.
How do you rate the importance of the FIVB Volleyball World Cup?
Arakida: Very important. As is true for other teams, we would like to secure a berth for the Olympics as soon as possible in order to have enough time to prepare for the Olympic Games.
Why did you choose volleyball? What are your favourite aspects of the sport?
Arakida: In my childhood, I loved playing with my friends. In middle school, we all wanted to join the basketball team. As there was no basketball, we played volleyball. The beginning of my volleyball life was difficult as I was too short (1.49m) to spike over the net. Despite that, I loved playing with colleagues, covering errors and scoring.
When you look back at your career, what has changed most in volleyball?
Arakida: I think that the essence of Japan’s hard-working volleyball ethic has remained unchanged since 1964 in Tokyo, when volleyball became an Olympic sport. Even in the 1970s, our late head coach Mr Yamada invited many male players to our practice sessions to help us improve. That was one of our strategies to help us become world champions.
These days, women’s volleyball Is played by tall players and is spectacular and dynamic. I wonder if Yamada ever thought volleyball would become what it is today. Compared to the 1970s, the big difference is of course that the number of international and continental competitions has increased drastically. Thanks to advanced medical technology and research, however, players can be active for longer, even if some players with injuries do not have enough time to recover between competitions.