Gymnastics-Japanese women still looking for a star

Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Gymnastics - Artistic - Women's Uneven Bars - Qualification - Ariake Gymnastics Centre, Tokyo, Japan - July 25, 2021. Mai Murakami of Japan in action on the uneven bars REUTERS/Mike Blake

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TOKYO (Reuters) -Japanese gymnast Mai Murakami quietly finished her qualifying rounds at the Tokyo Games on Sunday with almost no reporters waiting to talk to her. The day before, media swarmed Japan's men's team as they finished at the top of the pack.

Murakami, 24, and described by some sports watchers as possibly Japan's best-ever female gymnast, takes it all in her stride, acknowledging that superior performances by the men's team over the years - gold or silver in every Olympics since Athens 2004 - make the difference in public and media interest.

Japan's women have won one Olympic medal, a bronze, in 1964 when Tokyo last hosted the Summer Games.

"The difference in attention we get - well, that's due to the difference in skill, and I guess it's just inevitable," Murakami told reporters after the first qualifying subdivision on Sunday.

"I'm always being made to feel we women need to become stronger performers," said Murakami, who took all-around silver at the 2018 world championships and gold in floor at the 2017 worlds.

Japanese gymnastics watchers say that, with strong sponsorship backing both women's and men's teams, it comes down mainly to a question of star power - a lack of somebody to inspire girls to take up the sport.

"It's mainly a matter of tradition, the men have been strong for so long that this creates a desire among children to do it themselves," said Hirotaka Matsuoka, a sports marketing professor at Waseda University.

"There isn't such a role model for the women, so girls good in sports don't choose it - and with women's gymnastics, you really have to get going at a young age."

Many think Murakami could perhaps become that star.

She's already taken on a mentoring role, advising younger team mates on technique, and also providing emotional support. When another Japanese gymnast, Yuna Hiraiwa, wept after her performance on the uneven bars, Murakami embraced her and wiped her tears away.

Murakami was philosophical about her own performance, marred by errors at the end of her beam routine as well as the uneven bars.

"Since I made mistakes, I personally am rather regretful," she said, adding that tension created by an empty arena - with fans banned due to the coronavirus - had affected her.

"As for the team, even though there were mistakes we could have fun and cheer each other on, so I think it was enjoyable in the end."

(Reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)

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