Thursday night was warm and clear in Yokohama. A cloudless, gradually darkening sky stretched over the 400-meter track at the Yamato Sports Center — seemingly boundless in its ability to absorb the shouts and laughter coming from the 20 boisterous young members of the Yokohama Athlete Club, who had gathered for their weekly training session.
“Good evening everyone,” called out Shushi Kuge, the clean-cut 55-year-old club director. “As you all know, we have a competition coming up on Monday, and so today the key focus is to train carefully, avoid injuries. Should we do an 800? Let’s do an 800-meter run, then we’ll break up into groups to focus on particular events — relay, long-jump, sprint, hurdles, as always.”
By now the children had assembled in a line in front of Kuge. Aged from 9 to 12, they were a mixed group, with the youngest just two-thirds the height of the oldest, but they were recognizable instantly for their green-colored club T-shirts.
“You have probably all noticed there is something different about tonight,” Kuge continued. “We have a special guest, a reporter from The Japan Times, who is interested in talking to you all about your thoughts on the Olympic Games.”
Sure enough, awkward glances in the direction of said visitor ensued. I bowed respectfully.
“You all know that on Sunday Tokyo was named host of the 2020 Olympics, don’t you?” Kuge continued. “Of course you do! When you heard about it, how many of you immediately calculated your age in 2020?”
Around 15 hands went up.
“And how many of you thought, ‘I want to compete in Tokyo!’?”
Five hands — not counting the ones that hovered head-height, or the ones that shot up, but then bent backwards as contortions of embarrassment took hold.
“Don’t be shy about it,” Kuge said. “All of you are competitive athletes. You might still be in elementary school, but you enter competitions and so having the desire to compete at the highest level is natural. And each and every one of you has the potential to compete in 2020. Of course, it will be extremely competitive, but you all have the potential. It’s all about setting small goals every day and then achieving those, one by one. I want each of you to set a goal for tonight’s training, too.”
Soon the children were being put through a series of stretches and exercises — short sprints, jogs and one particularly odd routine that a coach later explained consisted of running with one leg but walking with the other. “It’s all about getting them to be conscious of how their legs are moving,” he said.
The kids approached the exercises with vigor, but joked and laughed with each other as they rested or waited in line to run. One, a 9-year-old named Kanon Shinbori, took it upon herself to make the visiting reporter laugh — with constant peace signs and funny faces.
She was very keen to talk about the Games, too.
“If I can compete in the Olympic Games, then everyone will be able to come and watch me (because it’s in Tokyo). That would be a lot of fun,” she said.
Apparently a keen follower of Kuge’s advice, she had set for herself not one but two goals for the evening: swinging her arms fast and keeping her chin down while she ran.
“Don’t you find you just end up looking up at the sky when you run?” she asked.
“All the time,” I found myself saying.
First mention of the Olympics to a group of young boys elicited an outpouring of joy: “It was so good to hear, because, age-wise, we will be able to go!” they said.
Discussion quickly turned to their favorite event — the 100-meter sprint.
“My best time at the moment is 14.6 seconds,” explained 12-year-old Shu Sagiri. Eleven-year-old Kei Tagami, it turned out, was faster: 14.44. And Yuki Harada (10) faster still: 14.37 seconds.
Despite the differences, though, it seemed they all had the same goal: breaking that pesky 14-second barrier!
“I train two or three times a week,” said Tagami.
“My time has come down about one second every year,” said Sagiri.
“In 20 years’ time you’ll be, like, zero!” yelled one of them.
“And in seven years’ time, you’ll leave Usain Bolt in the dust!” I offered.
Later it became clear that progress was already being made — if not by the sprinters.
“I did it,” exclaimed 11-year-old Yuki Ando — a reference to his goal of breaking 2 minutes 40 seconds in that night’s 800-meter run.
As the night wore on, waves of achievement soon built into a flood.
Kei Tagami, who had explained his goal was to catch the baton properly in relay training, returned with a satisfied look. “On the times I did achieve it, we were timed perfectly and it felt really good,” he said.
Ren Sato (11) wanted to cover the distance between hurdles in just three steps. “I just made it, but only just,” he said. “Just.”
Others reported easy success in achieving the night’s goals and were keen to return to talk of the Olympics.
Twelve-year-old Hanano Saegusa reportedly matter-of-factly that she succeeded in not losing speed between hurdles, and then offered this: “When I heard about the Olympics I was so happy. I really want to represent Japan there.”
Mami Sakae (12) promised to keep training hard for the next seven years. “I really like running,” she said.
And what about Kanon Shinbori? There she was again with the customary peace sign.
Did she swing her arms fast and hold her chin down?
“Hmm, I tried, but I couldn’t really do it,” she admitted. “I got halfway there!”