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JAAF gives national team warm sendoff

by Ed Odeven

Just days away from the start of track and field’s biggest competition of 2009, top officials from the Japan Association of Athletics Federations expressed pride in its athletes and confidence that they’ll have a successful showing in Germany.

“I would like you all to perform understanding the great expectations people have,” JAAF president Yohei Kono told the national team during a news conference on Wednesday afternoon at a Tokyo hotel.

“The (Japanese) citizens have high expectations for the world championships,” he added. “We’ve seen you have shown great outcomes, making big progress. We hope that you all show your growth in Berlin. The real-deal athletes can’t be competitive only in the nation. The real samurai can compete fairly in the world.

“That said, I hope each athlete breaks his or her best mark first, and then national records, or we have some that even aim for the world records or tournament records.”

The 12th IAAF World Athletics Championships begins on Aug. 15 in Berlin and concludes on Aug. 23.

Japan is sending a delegation of 59 athletes (32 men, 27 women) to Germany, including hammer thrower Koji Murofushi, a 15-time national champion, 2004 Athens Games gold medalist and 2008 Beijing Games bronze medalist.

Pole vaulter Daichi Sawano, a two-time Olympian, is seeking his first worlds medal, as is long-distance runner Kayoko Fukushi, who also competed at two Olympiads. She is the Asian record holder in the half-marathon.

Other competitors include sprinters Naoki Tsukuhara and Shinji Takahira, who helped Japan win a 4×100-meter relay bronze in Beijing. It was Japan’s first track medal in the Olympics since the 1928 Amsterdam Games. The two other relay members, Shingo Suetsugu and Nobuharu Asahara, are not competing at worlds. Asahara has retired.

At the 2007 IAAF World Championships in Osaka, Reiko Tosa won Japan’s lone medal, picking up a bronze in the women’s marathon on the final day of competition. Tosa’s performance set a benchmark for Japan’s athletes in 2009.

“The level of the world is improving day in and day out, but we would like the Japanese athletes to compete well in the world championships in Berlin,” said Tsunekazu Takeda, the JOC president. “We would also like you to compete and break your own personal records, looking ahead to the London Games in three years.”

Susumu Takano, The team manager, said Team Japan has set a target of earning at least one medal at worlds. He said six top eight-finishes represent the other big goal.

Takano described these targets as realistic targets.

“We believe we have made enough preparations since Beijing as we held monthly training camps,” Takano noted. “Fortunately, most of the athletes who participated in the training camps made the national team.”

Entering the worlds, there are a number of unknowns for the Japan national team, notably the fact that 29 of the 59 participants are first-timers.

The team features 13 athletes who are 23 or younger, including heralded sprinter Chisato Fukushima (100, 200 and 4×100 relay), Yurika Nakamura (5,000 and 10,000) and Yuriko Kobayashi (5,000). All three competed at the 2008 Beijing Games.

Seventeen-year-old Miho Shingu, the youngest member of Team Japan, makes her world championships debut this year. The Higashi Osaka College Keiai High School student is slated to compete in the 4×400 relay.

Japan’s youthful identity is part of the team’s blueprint for the future, according to Takano.

“We ‘sowed some seeds’ by having some young prospects compete in Osaka (the 2009 Osaka Grand Prix in May) to give many of them an opportunity, and it has started sprouting up,” said Takano.

He added: “We are going to give the best support we can. This is the important first step toward London.”

Sawano was selected as Japan’s male captain, while hurdler/4×400-relay member Satomi Kubokura earned the honor on the women’s side.

Sawano is clearly motivated to help Japan have a successful performance at worlds, but refuses to be intimidated by the feelings of pressure to repeat what the aforementioned 4×100-relay unit accomplished in China.

“In Berlin, we would like to show the best performance we can,” he said. “We cannot be overshadowed by the feat of the relay team”