Ayumi Fukushima competes in breaking at the OQS in Shanghai. GETTY IMAGES

Former kindergarten teacher Ayumi Fukushima will likely represent Japan in the debuting breaking discipline at the Paris Summer Games after winning the pre-qualifier in Shanghai this past weekend. One last dance in Hungary might seal the deal, and dream, of a lifetime.

Fukushima, who hopes to repeat her performance in the second part of the Olympic Qualifier Series, scheduled for 20-23 June in Budapest, is now in pole position for a prized Olympic spot, an unusual opportunity for those athletes on the other side of 40.

But breakdancing, or breaking, as the sport is officially called by the International Olympic Committee, offers a clean slate to many Paris 2024 hopefuls who didn’t have the chance to represent their country at the elite level before the sport was included in the Games’ programme. "I'm old but I don't feel too much old," Fukushima told AFP after her weekend victory in China.

Just last week, IOC sports director Kit McConnell said the qualifiers, that also featured BMX freestyle, sport climbing and skateboarding, were part of the IOC’s effort to promote said sports in an urban setting with the upcoming Olympics in mind, clearly focusing on younger audiences. 

The official also emphasised the goal of contributing to highlight the significant innovations in the Olympic programme. “This is a hugely exciting project. It started in Tokyo with proposals for new sports. More youth, more urban and more women. Paris will be the first fully gender equal Olympic Games in history,” McConnell forecasted. “The addition of breaking brings a further emphasis on youth-focused urban sport”.

Fukushima has long been a trailblazer for "B-girls" -- women breakdancers -- in what has traditionally been a male-dominated scene, and became the first woman to compete at the Red Bull BC One World Finals in 2017. Since then, she conquered  the 2021 WDSF World Breaking Championship in Paris, where the competition was split into men and women categories, and took bronze at the 2022 World Games and 2023 Asian Games in Hangzhou, China.

Fukushima first dabbled in breakdancing as a shy 21-year-old student. "In my generation it was kind of normal to start when we're in university," she said in Shanghai, where she topped the B-girl competition. "But these days most of the people start when they're kids." She never thought she would have a chance to compete in the Olympics. Given her age, it could be her first and last shot at it. "It's a new thing for us, for the Olympics, so I'm really happy to be in this process," she said.

In Shanghai’s weekend pre-qualifying event, Japan stunned crowds with perfect scores in the breaking and ended up taking all three podium positions in the women’s finals: Fukushima in first, Ami Yuasa in second, and Riko Tsuhako in third. Netherland’s B-boy Lee (Lee-Lou Demierre) battled China’s Lithe-ing and came out on top. Third place went to Hiro10 of Japan, who defeated a rival “ten”, HongTen of South Korea.

The Asian country has long been a breakdancing powerhouse, and Fukushima sees a bright future for the sport, with the next generation ready to handle the relay. "All the young people are very strong," Fukushima said of her teammates. "It's not only winning, we enjoy this moment."

For years, Fukushima balanced her day job as a teacher with her role as a member of a dance crew based in Kyoto. She has cut back on her teaching duties in recent months, telling AFP that she is now "more focused on dancing", yet carves out time to give dance classes to young children, whom she hopes will bring the fledgling sport to greater heights. "Everywhere I go I see many kids interested in breaking... and for us it's really happy," she said.

On the sidelines of the Shanghai qualifier, dozens of children practised breakdancing moves at a public workshop intended to popularise the sport, while the Japanese team warmed up nearby. "Hopefully we get more people to get in touch with our culture," Fukushima said.

While other longtime dancers have debated whether inclusion in the Olympics could compromise the freewheeling, rebellious spirit of breakdancing, Fukushima said she doesn't believe the culture of breakdancing will change. "We have a sport and a culture... I think we're gonna grow both together," she concluded.