| TOKYO, June 14
TOKYO, June 14 Even if Japanese track cyclist
Kazunari Watanabe's longshot Olympic dream comes true in London,
there will be no happy homecoming. The town no longer exists.
Watanabe's home town of Futaba sits next to the Fukushima
Daiichi nuclear plant, which was hit by the March 2011
earthquake and massive tsunami that followed, sparking
explosions that scattered radioactive debris and forced the town
to be evacuated.
Today, the coastal town remains a no-man's land, and Japan's
government estimated that an exclusion order barring families
from returning could remain in place for almost half of the town
for another decade.
The 28-year-old, who slipped out of the town with dreams of
making his fortune in Japanese professional cycling, now finds
himself an unlikely spokesman for an effort to ensure that
evacuees from Japan's nuclear disaster are not forgotten.
"The consequences from the devastation will continue for many
more years, and it will be my life work to keep attention on the
issue," said Watanabe, who missed the medal platform at the
Beijing Olympics but still managed sixth in the team sprint and
was feted by his home town all the same.
"I want to be power for the people in Futaba and Fukushima
at this Olympics and will aim for the gold medal.
"I want to help them and bring them some light as an
When Watanabe was growing up in Futaba, most people either
worked at the nuclear power plant or made a living selling
things to those who did, like his father, who wove traditional
Watanabe was a gifted runner but he switched to cycling at
high school because of the impact of Yuichiro Kamiyama, who won
over $30 million on Japan's professional cycling circuit.
Kamiyama dominated the keirin in the 1990s, a race that
features a pace bike and a line of riders that build up speed in
a tightly choreographed line until an all-out sprint at the end
that can reach speeds of 70 kilometres (43 miles) per hour.
Keirin, after lobbying from Japan, became an Olympic sport
at the Sydney games in 2000.
But unlike judo, the other Olympic sport with an origin in
Japan, competitors from outside Japan have dominated and the
country's only medal so far was the bronze won by Kiyofumi Nagai
Watanabe, who made his professional debut in keirin at 19,
was training in Tokyo for the world championships last March
when the 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of
He remembers nervous hours watching scenes of the
devastation on television before he could reach his sister on
the phone and learned that her family and his parents had
escaped alive and unharmed.
In the weeks that followed, he struggled to focus on his
training. He raced poorly. He no longer enjoyed the sport.
But his family and his friends who had evacuated Futaba
urged him to get back in the saddle.
"They were much cheerful than me and helped me to refocus
back on what I can do, which is cycling," he said.
Although he is bitter about the loss of his town, he is also
equally worried about the risks of people returning too quickly
to the contaminated zone around the Fukushima plant.
"They shouldn't send residents back until it is completely
safe. It will affect the children who are our hope to the next
generation," he said.
In London, Watanabe will compete in the team sprint
competition with three riders. Japan has not selected members
yet for the sprint or the keirin.
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)