Kobayashi chases Olympic dream

Teenage distance runner eager to compete against world's best in 5,000 meters

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Yuriko Kobayashi is Beijing-bound, but that’s not her terminal station.

She triumphantly crossed the finish line in 15 minutes, 11.97 seconds in the women’s 5,000 meters at the Japan Track and Field National Championships on June 29 in Kawasaki, earning a spot on the Japan Olympic team.

After winning the race, she flashed a big smile. It quickly transformed into tears of relief.

And then, it changed to a serious look.

“Right after I made it (to the Olympics), the reality struck me,” the 19-year-Kobayashi said. “I felt ashamed because I only made it and I shouldn’t just be pleased about it.”

Kobayashi’s primary race is the 1,500, but since the event’s final and the 5,000 final were held on the same day at the four-day national championships, she chose the latter event. The reason? She had already recorded an Olympic “A” standard and had a better chance to make it to Beijing in the longer race.

Yet “1,500″ — or sengo in her word — is still the figure that comes out of her mouth most often.

Kobayashi knows she’s presently no match for the world’s top runners in the 5,000. She admitted, however, with more training in the 1,500 she can increase her speed and become more successful in the longer race.

“While the world’s top-class runners are trying to enter the 13th minute, I’ve not even run sub-15th,” said Kobayashi, whose best time in the 5,000 is 15:07.37. “So my current, realistic objective is to get closer to them as much as possible.

“To make myself competitive in the 5,000 in the future, I have to train in the 1,500. Even when I run the 5,000, I’m aware of the 1,500 and its pace.”

Kobayashi’s early success in the 1,500 put her in the spotlight.

In 2005, Kobayashi remarkably won medals in international events (1,500 bronze in the 16th Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, and 1,500 silver in the fourth World Youth Championships in Marrakech, Morocco, and clocked the Japanese record of 4:07.87 in the IAAF Grand Prix in Osaka in 2006) as a student of Suma Gakuen High School in Kobe.

By achieving those feats, she earned the nickname of “super high school student.”

But her athletic career took a downward spiral after that.

Kobayashi became a member of the track club of Toyota Industries, Co., while being enrolled in Okayama University. But since she wasn’t actually working at the company, she wasn’t allowed to register as an industrial runner.

Last year, she brought the case to the Japan Sports Arbitration Agency (she later gave up registering in the industrial competitions; she can, however, compete in Japan Association of Athletics Federations-led events).

Hampered by injuries, Kobayashi missed the IAAF World Athletics Championships in Osaka last summer.

Having experienced glory days early in her career before tasting bitterness, Kobayashi confessed she became arrogant.

“I was thinking being in the spotlight was a normal thing,” the Hyogo Prefecture native said. “But I figured as I lost this past year, only those who come up with results gets the attention.”

But now she takes those past ups and downs in her stride, trying to remember that she wouldn’t have been where she is right now — in the position to participate in an Olympics — if she hadn’t taken this path.

“If I was in it . . . I’d probably have done everything inefficiently,” she said, responding to a question about competing in last summer’s World Championships. “I can say this to you honestly now, the experience worked in a better way for me afterward.”

Kobayashi’s always-positive way of talking and love for the sport, meanwhile, is reminiscent of a former Olympic great: Naoko Takahashi, the gold medalist in the women’s marathon at the 2000 Sydney Games.

As a matter of fact, Kobayashi has kept her eyes on Takahashi, and the 36-year-old former world record-holder was the reason she began competing in athletics.

“Not just that I have admiration for her but she’s the one I feel great about,” Kobayashi said, raising her tone of voice. “Now I’ll be able to go to Beijing to compete in the same stage (Olympics) as her, it’ll lead to confidence in me.”

Kobayashi knows that she has yet to have the same level of success that Takahashi achieved in Beijing.

But the Beijing Games will be a significant turnaround for her, a strong reminder of her growth as an athlete, including the chance to return to the Olympics in the future.

“It’ll be the stage that I can be on with short-track runners and (hammer thrower Koji) Murofushi who are aiming for medals, it’d be meaningless if I’m only pleased to be there,” she said. “I have to bring back something. I’m not competing (just) to become Japan’s best. . .”

Serious about doping

NEW YORK, (AP) In every office he’s ever worked in, Doug Logan hangs a photo of himself made up in clown makeup. It’s a reminder not to take himself too seriously.

When it comes to doping, though, the new CEO of USA Track & Field is as serious as can be.

“The clear message that I plan to convey is: If you’re cheating, get out,” Logan said Friday. “If we don’t address it — and address it in an aggressive, impassioned way — it’s going to choke the life out of the sport.”

Logan, the ex-commissioner and president of Major League Soccer, replaced Craig Masback, who left USATF in January. Logan wants to clean up track’s reputation.

The sport has taken huge hits recently, with Marion Jones going to prison for lying to federal investigators about a check-fraud scam and using steroids, and coach Trevor Graham receiving a lifetime ban from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for his role in helping athletes obtain performance-enhancing drugs.

“There is a large universe to it,” Logan said. “I certainly hope that I can put my name on the roster of those people that are not only trying but actually making a difference with regard to ridding ourselves of this horrible, horrible plague that exists on all of the sports these days.”

Logan led MLS from its startup year in 1995 through 1999.

He helped secure several long-term sponsorship commitments and negotiated a five-year television deal.

He’s hoping to apply what he learned at MLS to track.

“As opposed to soccer, track and field is not seen as something that is ‘foreign.’ It’s seen as something that is native and a red-blooded American pastime,” he said. “In certain ways, it’s an easier sell than the sell we had with soccer.”