The Challenges Towards Medals Confronting Meg & Kana Amid Playback ’04 and the Revival of Women’s Volleyball Popularity | FRIDAY DIGITAL

The Challenges Towards Medals Confronting Meg & Kana Amid Playback ’04 and the Revival of Women’s Volleyball Popularity

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Both were born in 1984 with a height of 187 cm. They were rivals in high school.

10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago, “FRIDAY” reported on various topics. Let’s revisit the topics that were the talk of the town at the time in “Playback Friday”. This time, we deliver the “Medal Achilles’ Heel for Meg & Kana in Women’s Volleyball: Challenges Piling Up Due to Devastating Loss to Russia” from the June 4th, 2004 issue, 30 years ago.

The Japanese women’s volleyball team secured their Olympic berth for the first time in two editions at the Athens Olympics final qualifier in May 2004. Coinciding with the peak of the “Meg-Kana” boom since the previous year’s World Cup, expectations for a medal were high among fans. However, reality seemed quite harsh. (The description in quotes is quoted from a past article).

After a tumultuous six-game winning streak, it seemed they might continue undefeated.

The Japanese women’s volleyball team secured their spot in the Athens Olympics with a decisive 3-0 victory over archrivals South Korea, marking their fifth consecutive win in the tournament with unstoppable momentum. New ace Megumi Kurihara (then 19 years old) even declared their intent to win a medal at the Olympics, leading many to believe they could go undefeated in all seven matches. However, they unexpectedly faced a harsh reality in the final match.

“On the final day, against Russia, we were unable to impose our volleyball with strong serves and high blocks, resulting in a devastating 3-0 defeat. Kurihara, who had been exceptionally effective with spikes and back attacks throughout, was shut down by three tall blockers.

In her place, Kana Oyama (then 19), with her tall 187 cm frame, tried to change the game’s momentum with powerful spikes, but couldn’t bring about a victory. Japan revealed their vulnerability when the ‘Meg-Kana’ combo, which usually energized the team, was shut down. Their lack of experience might become the Achilles’ heel towards a medal at the Olympics.”

Motoko Obayashi, who represented Japan as the ace attacker in three consecutive Olympics starting from Seoul 1988, also commented on the harshness of the world stage:

“Italy and Russia haven’t shown their full strength in this tournament. Russia only showed their true strength against Japan. Japan hasn’t been playing against top-tier countries recently, so they might feel strong, but we should consider Russia as a world-class opponent.”

In the Olympics, powerhouse teams like China, the United States, and Brazil, whom Japan didn’t face in qualifiers, are competing fiercely. It seems quite challenging to secure a medal among them. However, Meg and Kana, who were still idol-like figures just the previous November in the World Cup, have shown remarkable growth as key players in this tournament. The challenges ahead for these two are.

“Kurihara, despite her lower power, is versatile enough to play both left and right positions, so I hope she develops a flexible technique to evade blocks and hit anywhere. As for power type Oyama, I’d like her to aim to be like the strongest cleanup hitter who overpowers opponents. I hope they both approach their game with thorough dedication and expand their unique abilities,” commented Ohbayashi.

The “Meg-Kana” duo was showing significant evolution. Whether Japan reaches the medal podium depended on their growth over the next three months.

In a 2019 interview with ‘Sportsnavi’, Kurihara reflected on the Athens qualifiers:

“With each game, I felt it was fun, and I could sense the team getting stronger. More than just securing our spot in the Olympics, that happiness was greater.”

Certainly, at that time, Japan’s women’s team seemed almost divinely strong. However, the barriers of the world remained formidable. At the Athens Olympics, despite advancing through the qualifying rounds with 2 wins and 3 losses, Japan suffered a 3-0 defeat to China in the quarterfinals and ended up finishing in 5th place.

However, since winning the bronze medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the Japanese women’s volleyball team had drifted away from the medal podium. They even missed their first-ever appearance in the Olympics in 2000 at Sydney, facing a period of decline. For the team, the appointment of coach Akihiko Yanamoto in 2003 brought hope. Despite having experienced veterans like Captain Tomoko Yoshihara,  Yoshie Takeshita and Miyuki Takahashi, the 19-year-old duo of Kurihara and Oyama symbolized a “new Japan,” becoming emblematic figures and sparking a revival in volleyball popularity.

Japan’s women achieved their long-awaited Olympic medal after 28 years at the 2012 London Olympics. However, neither Kurihara nor Oyama was part of that team. Oyama struggled with back pain, forcing her to withdraw from the 2008 Beijing Olympics. After undergoing rehabilitation and returning to contention for the national team, she eventually declined the opportunity and retired from active competition in 2010.

Kurihara contributed to Japan’s 5th place finish in Beijing as the team’s ace but struggled with knee injuries that prevented her from making the London Olympics squad. Nevertheless, she continued to excel in the V.League, reaching 230 career appearances by January 2016 and receiving the V.League Honor Award. She announced her retirement from active play in June 2019.

Following in the footsteps of these two players, the current Japanese women’s team secured their place in a record sixth consecutive Olympics on June 14th. Will they showcase such performances in Paris?


Kurihara, nicknamed “Princess Meg,” revealed that she wasn’t particularly fond of the “Princess” nickname. (June 4th, 2004 issue)
Meanwhile, Oyama, known as “Powerful Kana,” was described as powerful in her gestures as well. (June 4th, 2004 issue)
Kurihara was known as a traditional attacker. She mentioned having struggled with reception during middle school. (June 4th, 2004 issue)
Oyama, hailed as the “new era cannon” due to her overwhelming power, garnered high expectations. (June 4th, 2004 issue)
Both players were immensely popular, prompting Kurihara to admit she tried to avoid being together with Oyama as much as possible. (June 4th, 2004 issue)
  • PHOTO Hiroyuki Komatsu

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