Foreign athletes have been conspicuous in numerous ekiden long-distance relays since the 1980s.
In the 65th Hakone Ekiden in 1989, Joseph Otwori, a Kenyan student at Yamanashi Gakuin University, and the first foreign runner in the race, overtook seven runners in the second leg, helping to up his team’s finishing position from 11th the previous year to 7th. Then, when Otwori was in his final year in 1992, the team achieved its first-ever victory in the Hakone Ekiden, and since then other Kenyan runners have helped it to the top spot in 1994 and 1995.
The Kenyans’ performances led other universities to welcome more African students into their ekiden teams.
Daniel Gitau, from Kenya’s highest town, Nyahururu, is one of those.
Gitau, 21, who was a track runner in a high school in Nyahururu, entered Tokyo-based Nihon University’s branch at Mishima, Shizuoka Prefecture, in April 2006 with the hope of improving his athletic abilities. That, indeed, he did, and in the process helped to greatly improve Nihon U’s ekiden team.
In the 84th Hakone Ekiden this year, Gitau ran in the second leg, the tough stage in which the fastest runners from each university compete. After receiving the tasuki cord from the 19th-placed first runner, Gitau overtook 15 runners — so tying the event’s all-time record.
“When I was running up Gontazaka slope (in Yokohama), it felt really hard,” Gitau said. “I put up with it for my team, including the next runner, so that he could start in a more advantageous position.”
When the Kenyan runner finished the 23.2 km stage in 1 hr. 7 min. 27 sec., he was in fourth place, as Kenyan Mekubo Mogusu, from Yamanashi Gakuin University, headed the race with a time of 1 hr. 6 min. 23 sec. — the record time for that leg.
It is highly likely that the two Kenyan students will be competing in the same stage of the Hakone Ekiden on Jan. 2.
“Mogusu is a good friend of mine, but he is rival in the race,” Gitau said. “I do my best so our team can be the champion.”
You may wonder what element of ekiden makes this Kenyan youth so enthusiastic about the long-distance road relay?
“I run wearing the tasuki cord, which symbolizes the spirits of every team member and the expectations of all the students of Nihon University and its alumni,” he said.
Gitau’s goal after graduating, he said, is to take part in the 2012 London Olympics and compete in the 5,000 meters or 10,000 meters track events.
His dream seems realistic, as Samuel Wanjiru, a former ekiden star from Kenya, won the gold medal in the men’s marathon at the Beijing Olympics in August.
Wanjiru, 22, was formerly a student at Sendai Ikuei Gakuen High School in Miyagi Prefecture, and ran in national high-school ekiden, setting records in the legs he ran in races in 2003 and 2004.
After graduation, Wanjiru got a job with Toyota Motor Kyushu, Inc. and joined the company’s athletics team. He ran in intercompany ekiden races and individually in marathons in Japan and overseas. While Wanjiru left Toyota on Aug. 1, he explained that he wanted to concentrate on marathons.
However, it was Wanjiru’s experience of the road relays that trained him to become a top world-class athlete, said Katsushi Fuchiwaki, Wanjiru’s manager since he joined the Toyota athletic club.
“Kenyan athletes tend to withdraw from races when their condition is not very good. But Wanjiru learned he should not drop out of the race as he ran in ekiden, which is team sport,” Fuchiwaki said. “I believe the endurance in continuing running to the goal, which he learned from ekiden, led to his gold medal in Beijing.”
Like Wanjiru, the speed of foreign runners has been outstanding compared to Japanese runners, and as a result the number of foreign athletes in each of the major ekiden races has been limited to one per team by the sport’s organizers.
However, in two international ekiden races in Japan, non-Japanese athletes have not surprisingly been leading figures.
In the Yokohama International Women’s Ekiden, which has been held annually since 1983, athletes from nearly 40 countries have participated. But the women’s ekiden there on Feb. 22 will be the last, as an international women’s marathon in Yokohama in autumn will replace the ekiden, according to Nippon Television Network Corp, the ekiden’s organizer.
Another international road relay, the Chiba International Ekiden, started in 1988 in the city of Chiba east of Tokyo. In the race held on Nov. 23, 13 teams from 11 countries competed. Each team was comprised of three men and three women in a mixed style adopted the year before.
In the race, four Ethiopian runners produced the fastest time in their respective legs to help deliver victory for their country, beating defending champion Japan into second place, with Russia in third, a Japanese university students’ team fourth and Australia fifth.
The Australian team’s first-leg runner, Ben St. Lawrence, said that he was happy with the result, as the country’s rank improved from seventh the previous year.
Lawrence, who also ran in the Chiba International Ekiden in 2007, said the uniqueness of ekiden is its team dynamic.
“The best thing about it is you are part of a team, so you not only hope to do well individually but as a team as well, which you do not on the track, as usually you are just running for yourself,” Lawrence said in a telephone interview.
While there are relays in Australia, participants run on tracks or small roads, which are basically in the middle of nowhere, he said, adding that “it’s more interesting traveling through the city (in ekiden). It is also good obviously due to the live telecast and huge crowd support in your country.”
If ekiden races were held in one of the cities in Australia, there would be a chance that the road relays would attract big crowds and could be quite a popular sport, said Lawrence, who is an amateur runner living in Sydney.
Actually, though, ekiden has already become a popular annual event in one city in the United States. On Sept. 21, the 18th Atlanta Ekiden Relay was held in the Georgia metropolis, with nearly 730 runners in 121 teams participating.
According to the organizer, Atlanta Track Club, the race is a legacy of the Olympic Games held there in 1996 as, when Atlanta was awarded the Games in 1990, TV company Tokyo Broadcasting System, Inc. approached the club about putting on an ekiden event. TBS was forced to withdraw from the project due to the faltering Japanese economy, but the event held in 1991 was a success and remains a highlight on the Atlanta calendar.
The Atlanta Ekiden Team Relay covers approximately 30 km, with each runner covering 5 km, and Tracy Lott, director of marketing and communications for the Atlanta Track Club, said in an e-mail interview that, “While the race size has grown over the years, we feel as though there is still a lot of opportunity for additional growth in this particular race.”
There are approximately 14 different divisions that teams can be a part of in the Atlanta event — including Open Men’s, Open Women’s, Open Mixed, Masters Men, Men’s Corporate and Military Mixed.
As to why ekiden has become popular in Atlanta, Lott pointed out the teamwork and social aspects of the road relay, which attracts spectators in the city who are mostly friends and relatives of competitors.
“In addition to the teamwork and social aspects, the Atlanta Ekiden Team Relay is also a very festive event. Given the number of divisions that we have in the race, there are plenty of opportunities for teams to win awards,” Lott said.
Asked about future of ekiden, Lott said: “There is definitely an opportunity for ekiden to continue to gain popularity, especially in the United States. It’s difficult to tell its future in terms of becoming an Olympic sport; however, as the sport of running continues to grow and gain visibility throughout the world, the opportunities for growth in the popularity of ekiden relays will also increase.”