During last week’s Japanese Olympic Trials, Shoma Sato amazed all of us with the best performance of the year so far in swimming. His 2:06.40 in the men’s 200 breaststroke is the second-fastest performance of all time, just three-tenths shy of Anton Chupkov‘s world record. The 19-year-old swimmer has been showing a lot of improvement lately, having swum in the 2:06s three times so far in 2021 alone. It seems he’s reaching his peak in the right time, a few months from the Olympic Games in his home country.
Seeing a Japanese swimmer among the fastest in the world in the men’s 200 breast is nothing new. A few weeks ago, before Sato’s 2:06.40, Instagram’s Swimming Stats page published the top 50 all time performers in the event. The first thing many people noticed was the four Japanese flags in the top 10. And some users pointed out that Japan has 11 swimmers inside the top 50.
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Let’s look at the numbers to have a better idea of the incredible depth of Japan in the men’s 200 breast. It dates back from the 1920-1930s, when Japanese swimmers won the event at three Olympics in a row. In fact, no country has won the event more than Japan at the Olympics: six times.
In this century, three Japanese swimmers (Kosuke Kitajima, Akihiro Yamaguchi, and Ippei Watanabe) held the world record for almost 10 years, more than any other country. The biggest name, of course, is Kosuke Kitajima, back-to-back Olympic champion in 2004 and 2008.
Since 2001, Japanese swimmers has won eight medals in the event at the World Championships – again, more than any other country. In the last two editions, Yasuhiro Koseki won the silver medal in Budapest (2017), and Ippei Watanabe, the world record holder from 2017 to 2019, won the bronze medal in both Budapest and Gwangju (2019).
This is where we really see the power of Japan in the men’s 200 breast: neither Koseki nor Watanabe, two of the fastest men in the history in the event, managed to get a spot on Japan’s Olympic roster, since Sato and Ryuya Mura were the fastest two swimmers at the Trials.
There have been many amazing 200 breaststrokers from Hungary, the United States, Russia, Australia, Great Britain, and other countries. But, if there is an event in swimming owned by Japan, it is the men’s 200 breast. If the Japanese swimming fans had to choose one single event for a Japanese swimmer win the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics, it would be no surprise to see them choose the men’s 200 breast.