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A Tokyo district's uphill quest for the perfect bobsleigh

By Takashi Umekawa

TOKYO (Reuters) - At the end of November, Satoshi Kosugi got terrible news: the bobsleigh he and a group of Tokyo manufacturers had spent two years building for the Sochi Olympics would not be used by the Japanese national team.

Japan has sent bobsledders to the Winter Olympics before but due to budget constraints they had always raced in used, foreign-made sleighs that didn't fit Japanese athletes properly.

Kosugi decided to rectify the situation, and so began the quest to create a homemade sleigh the national team could use at the Olympics for the first time.

It was a brave move, given that foreign teams are often supported by giant corporations. Ferrari develops for the Italian team, BMW supports the Germans and NASA has backed up the U.S. team in the past.

"I just couldn't believe the decision," said Kosugi, fighting for calm a day after the news came in.

The project began in 2011 when Kosugi, a civil servant in Ota - a proud but struggling area known for its small manufacturers - heard that the national team had never used a Japanese-built sleigh before.

"The foreign sleighs were a little too big for Japanese, and when it had problems no mechanics were available to fix them," he said. "The sleigh the Japanese athletes used was once repaired with adhesive tape."

So Kosugi and a group of businessmen from Ota, whose tiny factories have produced parts for rockets and Formula One cars but has been in slow decline since the glory days of the 1980s, decided something needed to be done - both for the team and to restore the lustre of Ota's name.

'TERRIFYING THING'

Ota, on the southern edge of central Tokyo, is known as a logistics hub.

It had 4,300 firms in 2008, the latest year for which data is available, but was hit hard by the 2008 financial crisis and the massive 2011 earthquake and tsunami, which prompted big companies to move their product bases abroad.

"The most terrifying thing for us was losing markets," said Junichi Hosogai, chairman of the bobsleigh project committee and the president of Material, a non-ferrous metals processing firm.

"It was necessary for us to make an appeal for our technology by creating something symbolic to grab markets."

When the call for the project went out, a number of factories hesitated at first, since Tokyo has very little snow and they were not familiar with the sport. They also did not think there would be any financial benefits.

Still, 30 firms stepped forward.

The first step was borrowing a bobsleigh from a university in northern Japan that had a team and taking it apart to draw a blueprint. Two hundred different parts were needed.

Each company then built sections of the bobsleigh according to its own specialty. The first prototype, which came together in only 10 days, was finished in October 2012.

"Even though we were used to quick deliveries, we had to work late at night and it was hard to come up with ideas," said Hosogai, whose firm produced some 50 parts.

CRAFTMAN'S ZEAL

A big hurdle was deciphering the 100 page-long regulation book issued by the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation and written entirely in English, which included a lot of technical language and jargon.

Several team members could read English but found the directions in the book confusing.

The cost of the sleigh was 18 million yen ($175,700), 10 million of which came from the Ota district government. The rest was supplied by Hosogai's company.

"Honestly, 8 million yen was a stab in the wallet for a medium-sized company like us," he said.

The sleigh debuted in a domestic race last December but the group had to keep refining it for their ultimate goal, the Olympics. Testing chances were limited because Japan has just one bobsleigh track and it only opens in winter.

A second prototype, made after consultation with a group of bobsledders, was lighter and smaller. It was finished in October and shipped to Canada for its international debut.

But test runs revealed it needed work in 27 different places. It was also slower than a Latvian-made sleigh the team already used - less than a second but such small margins mean a lot in the sport, Kosugi said.

The blow fell as the group prepared to have the sleigh sent home for more work, with the Japanese federation for the sport saying there was no time left for test runs before Sochi.

The team would use the Latvian-made sleigh after all.

The project team remains undaunted, looking first to a Japanese competition in December and then towards the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

"Our team is even more closely united and technology has long been improved by learning something from failures, as we found this time," Hosogai said.

"Our craftsman's zeal will never be extinguished." ($1 = 102.4450 Japanese yen)

(Editing by Elaine Lies/Peter Rutherford)

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