Japan ski jump queen Takanashi grapples Olympic demons
Pyeongchang (South Korea), Feb 4 (AFP) Haunted by the memory of her Olympic heartbreak four years ago, Japan's ski jumping superstar Sara Takanashi has a point to prove in Pyeongchang.
But despite being the most successful female ski jumper of all time, the 21-year-old must break a perplexing slump in form that stretches back almost a year in order to banish her demons.
Takanashi has been stuck on 53 World Cup wins -- the most by any woman in the history of the sport -- since last March, and on recent form Norway's Maren Lundby and Katharina Althaus of Germany are tipped to contest the gold medal.
One more World Cup victory will see Takanashi overtake Austrian Gregor Schlierenzauer and claim an unprecedented win total -- male or female.
However, the pressure to break that record appears to have upset Takanashi's preparations as she attempts to avenge her flop at the 2014 Sochi Games, when the hot favourite slumped to fourth behind gold medallist Carina Vogt of Germany as women's ski jumping made its Olympic bow.
Once again Takanashi, Japan's flag bearer at the Pyeongchang opening ceremony on February 9, comes into the Olympics as World Cup holder, having last year captured a record fourth title that put her level with Matti Nykanen and Adam Malysz.
But it is hard to look past Lundby and Althaus in the women's field, while Takanashi once again finished outside the top three at the weekend in her final World Cup appearance in Slovenia.
"I missed a podium but the gap in score wasn't that big," insisted Takanashi, who will need to produce something special in South Korea to avoid further pain.
"There were a lot of positive takeaways and I'll be aiming for gold in Pyeongchang," added the native of Japan's rugged northern island of Hokkaido.
"I want to pay my debts for what happened in Sochi."
- Cult hero Kasai -
While Takanashi shoots for gold, fellow Japanese jumper Noriaki Kasai is set to become the first athlete to compete at eight Winter Olympics.
The 45-year-old, who made his Olympic debut at Albertville in 1992, won team silver at Lillehammer in 1994, plus silver for the large hill and team bronze at Sochi in 2014 -- making him the oldest Olympic ski jumping medallist.
"I never thought I'd be selected eight times," said Kasai, who has 17 individual World Cup victories to his name.
"I'd like to aim for 10 Olympic Games eventually. I want to medal in Pyeongchang in possible, give everything I have and leave with no regrets."
The mild-mannered Kasai is something of a cult hero in countries which embrace a sport where hardy competitors launch themselves off the side of a mountain and fly the length of a football field at 60mph (96kph).
In ski jump-obsessed Finland, Helsinki punk band Van Dammes recorded a tribute single called "Mr Noriaki Kasai" in 2014, while Polish rapper Koldi has also penned a song about the Japanese veteran.
Kasai, who also hails from Hokkaido, joins siblings Junshiro and Ryoyu Kobayashi, Daiki Ito and Taku Takeuchi on Japan's ski jumping team for the February 9-25 Pyeongchang Olympics