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Asahara concludes track career in style

by Kaz Nagatsuka

KAWASAKI — When he crossed the finish line, Nobuharu Asahara didn’t just finish the race. The moment also marked the end of his fruitful 20-year track career.

Asahara earned a third-place finish in the men’s 100-meter dash on Tuesday in the 2008 Seiko Super Track and Field Meet in Kawasaki. And so he hung up his shoes after the 10.37-second performance.

Britain’s Harry Aikines-Aryeetey won the race in 10.19 seconds, followed by American Michael Rodgers, who was clocked in 10.26.

In his farewell 100, Asahara competed against the other members of Japan’s 4×100 relay team that achieved a historical feat by winning the bronze medal — Japan’s first men’s track Olympic medal — in the Beijing Games in August for the last time.

Asahara had a slow start but managed to finish ahead of Naoki Tsukahara, Shingo Suetsugu and Shinji Takahira in the no-mercy showdown.

Tsukahara was fourth in 10.39, Suetsugu took fifth in 10.43 and Takahira placed seventh in 10.52.

An emotional retirement ceremony was held for the 36-year-old Asahara right after the event, and virtually all of the packed house of 20,078, including sprinter Usain Bolt, who won three gold medals in Beijing, remained at Todoroki Stadium to give the Japanese track hero a respectful sendoff from the sport.

Asahara appreciated the opportunity he had to share this special day with his teammates and fans.

“There aren’t many athletes that have their lasts like this,” a tearful Asahara said through a microphone on the field.

“I’m truly a happy man from the bottom of my heart.”

On this day, the Japanese relay members didn’t showcase their top form due to fatigue and a lack of training after the Olympics.

But the highly respected Asahara, who competed in four Olympics and six IAAF World Athletics Championships, including the 2007 meet in Osaka, said in a refreshed, eloquent voice that he was satisfied to give everything he had.

“Looking at the result, it’s not a good time,” the native of Hyogo Prefecture calmly told reporters after the meet. “But overall, I am full of satisfaction. I was bubbling from the previous day and even while I was running I could run with joy. That was a good race.”

Tsukahara, Suetsugu and Takahira, who tearfully handed flowers to Asahara at the retirement ceremony, were more melancholy than the outgoing Asahara. They, after all, already knew Asahara’s retirement will be a huge loss for the nation’s track and field program.

“As the Olympics was over and I heard (Asahara) was retiring, then I thought it’d be my last chance to run with him,” Suetsugu said of Tuesday’s meet. “I’ll miss him because he was a dependable man. From now on, we have to lead (the sport).”

Said Tsukahara: “I don’t believe this was an end of something. It was rather our first step. I was so honored to be here and it was really great to have one of the (relay) members.”

Asahara, a five-time national champion in 100, was arguably Japan’s pioneer in the event. He shattered the national record three times and advanced to the semifinals in the Olympics and at worlds five times (once at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and four times at worlds).

Yet, even though he said he was satisfied by how his career turned out, he wishes he could’ve competed in the final of the 100 in an Olympiad or at worlds.

“I wonder how great it’d feel to be a finalist,” he said, “and I’m sorry I couldn’t do it.

“But I’ve done everything I could. I’ll leave it to the coming generation.”

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In the men’s hammer throw, Koji Murofushi, the Athens Olympics champion, successfully set the table for Asahara by cooking the audience with his strong performance moments before the 100-meter race.

Despite feeling the effects of lower back pain and a recent bout with the flu, the 33-year-old made consistent throws and rallied past Hungary’s Krisztian Pars in his final attempt, making a 81.02-meter toss.

Beijing Games gold medalist Primoz Kozmus of Slovenia was third at 78.59 meters. Pars was second at 80.67

“I wasn’t in perfect shape at all, but I was able to overcome it with my technique,” said Murofushi, who finished fifth in China.

Murofushi, however, could belatedly receive the Olympic bronze medal if the IOC decides to strip Belarusians Vadim Devyatovskiy and Ivan Tsikhan of their silver and bronze medals, respectively, due to previously reported positive tests of testosterone. (A final decision is slated for Oct. 17.)

Murofushi, whose competition schedule has been limited due to his school work (he obtained a Ph.D in biomechanics at Chukyo University) and coping with injury in the last few years, was positive that he is going to participate in more competitions next year.

“A lower back injury often happens to throwers,” he said, “but it’s not impossible to throw, and hopefully I’d like to join more Grand Prix events.”