About this time last year, Yoshihide Kiryu was just an obscure sprinter who innocently hoped to be mentioned in Japanese track-and-field magazines, just like any other high school athlete.
A year later, he’s the sport’s most sought-after man in among members of the media.
The men’s 100-meter dash was the main event of the three-day National Championships at Ajinomoto Stadium this past weekend. An unusually large number of fans and reporters filed into the stadium to watch the event, in which Kiryu and his rival Ryota Yamagata competed (the second day drew 17,000 fans, the best figure of the three days).
Kiryu, 17, had a slow start and wound up crossing the finish line behind Yamagata with a time of 10.25 seconds for the runnerup spot.
But that didn’t dampened the media interest in Kiryu, who shocked the world by tying the world junior record of 10.01 seconds (Japan’s second-best time ever) in April’s Oda Memorial International meet.
He was probably surrounded by more reporters than Yamagata in the mixed zone after the race.
Kiryu, despite failing to earn his first national title, kept his poise. He politely and loudly answered each question he was asked, which would be a difficult task for ordinary high schoolers.
“I was just so excited because I was a challenger,” Kiryu said, when asked if he was nervous at the start line. “I’m disappointed to have lost now, but my excitement overcomes it.”
He also kept his head up because he knows that everything he goes through right now is precious experience that can help make him a better athlete.
And Kiryu admitted that Yamagata, who is older by a few years, has more experience, and that was one of the factors which made the difference in the race.
“Yamagata kept his focus and ran his own race,” Kiryu said. “When I let him take the lead, in a corner of my head I thought maybe I couldn’t catch up with him. So I lost with the mentality part.”
While Kiryu reflected on what he would have to improve, Koji Ito, the short-distance race director of the Japan Association of Athletics Federations, gave the Rakunan High School (Kyoto) student-athlete credit for how he wrapped up his race.
“He’s beyond our imagination,” said Ito, who clocked 10.00 in 1998 to set a national record which still stands to this day. “Usually, if you get off to a bad start, you get distracted mentally. But he chased (Yamagata) well. I have no clue how a high-school runner could do that.”
Ito understands that everyone wants to witness the first Japanese sprinter to run under 10 seconds in the near future. He thinks the latest group of youngsters, like Kiryu and Yamagata, could break the barrier.
“I think it’s coming,” Ito said. “I mean, we hope it is.”
Ito reminded people, however, that for Kiryu, who prior to ths year had never competed alongside senior athletes and foreigners, everything he does is for the first time.
“He looks so stately at the start line,” Ito said. “But he’s only a high school student and he’s not used to stages like this.
“But as he gets more experience, I think he’ll blossom like Yamagata.”
Yamagata, who turned 21 on Monday, said that it’s good to have such a competitive rival like Kiryu. But the Keio University student added that he was willing to help the younger sprinter.
“(Kiryu) has so much potential and has things I don’t have,” said Yamagata, who competed in last summer’s London Olympics. “He’s a rival that I want to grow with together.
“I’m a little older, so he can take advantage of my experiences so he can improve.”
The Kiryu factor isn’t limited to just the men’s 100-meter division.
Yasuhiro Harada, the JAAF’s strengthening committee director, said that the year after an Olympics usually becomes less vigorous, but that is not the case this season in Japan’s track-and-field scene.
“That Kiryu had the 10.01 mark has made it,” Harada said. “We’re very much looking forward to what he can achieve in the years to come.”
Veteran Olympian Shinji Takahira agreed with Harada, saying, “Kiryu’s one big mark (at Oda Memorial International) turned everybody’s switch on.”
Now Kiryu has clinched his first berth on the global stage in August’s IAAF World Championships in Moscow. He said that it was his childhood dream to represent Japan and put on the national team uniform.
But just being on the track at those world events doesn’t satisfy his appetite. Kiryu eventually wants to compete with the world’s top sprinters.
To realize that, he knows that he’s got much to absorb mentally and physically.
“I’m determined to compete with the world,” said Kiryu, a native of Shiga Prefecture. “And I would like to improve a lot more. I got to know through this tournament that I can’t compete on a par with the world’s athletes.”
He’s already gained international recognition because of his world junior record. A French TV crew was at the National Championships apparently to film the Kiryu phenomenon. His name is often mentioned by foreigners, including some athletes, on Twitter also.
“It seems that some foreign people know my name, which is great,” Kiryu said with a smile. “Hopefully, I’ll improve and be able to compete with the world’s top athletes so I can live up to everybody’s expectations.”