These days, major winter multisport events taking place in Asia have become almost commonplace. But back in 1991, Japan was still clamouring to be recognised as a world-class winter sports destination – even after Sapporo had hosted the Olympic Winter Games in 1972.
It is no stretch to say that the flawless execution of the Sapporo 1991 Winter Universiade helped Japan’s efforts to bring the Winter Olympics to Nagano in 1998, which subsequently paved the way for other winter events in Asia, including the PyeongChang 2018 and Beijing 2022 Olympic Games.
Sapporo 1991 was ground-breaking for FISU as well. It was the first time in 15 editions that the Winter Universiade had been staged in Asia and only the second time it was hosted outside of Europe (the first being Lake Placid 1972).
It was also a stage for Japan to showcase its growing prominence in winter sports. The host nation ran away with the medals table, finishing with 11 gold, 9 silver and 10 bronze, a full 13 medals ahead of the Soviet Union and 18 ahead of the United States. (All three nations sent over 100 athletes to the games.)
The Japanese had already made a name for itself in ski jumping, and Naoto Itou would not disappoint in winning the normal hill, large hill and team event. Japan also swept the podium in the Nordic combined.
But it was in cross-country skiing that the home team pulled off its biggest surprises. Japan struck gold in all but two events, and Miwa Ota became the starlet of the games with a triple gold-medal performance (10km classic, 10km combined and 15km free).
There were memorable moments from other nationalities at these games too, of course, including newcomers Greece and Mongolia.
On the ski hills, normal service was resumed with European and North American athletes dominating the podium.
Likewise, familiar faces Canada, the Soviet Union and Finland finished 1-2-3 in the ice hockey competition, although it was much closer than anyone would have imagined going into the tournament.
All three teams finished with 4 points in the final round. The stalemate was settled by virtue of goal differential, or in other words which team scored more against the fourth team in the final group: underdogs North Korea. Canada earned gold thanks to its 23-1 romp over the DPRK, while the Soviets settled for an 18-0 win and silver and the Finns took bronze following a 16-4 victory.
Japan, for the record, finished sixth out of seven teams in the hockey competition – one of the country’s only disappointments in what was an otherwise remarkable Universiade.
34 Countries participating
668 Athletes participating