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Yamagata aims to reach 100-meter final at world championships

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Everybody now talks about high school sprinting sensation Yoshihide Kiryu, recognizing the 17-year-old is the fastest current man in Japan.

Well, it is perhaps arguable.

Some may consider Ryota Yamagata is the nation’s sprinting champ, because, even though Kiryu’s has a better personal-best time (10.01 seconds) in the 100 meters, Yamagata appears to be more consistent at a higher level than the teenage athlete, who was invited to the Birmingham Diamond League meet in England in late June, but finished last in his heat (a lukewarm 10.55 seconds).

And unlike Kiryu, who makes his debut in an IAAF World Athletics Championships meet or an Olympics in Moscow, Yamagata’s already proven that he could come through when it matters most.

Yamagata competed in the 2012 London Olympics and ran a personal-best 10.07 seconds in the heats and advanced to the semifinals, where he ran 10.10. Both times were impressive because Japanese track athletes have often failed to excel on the biggest stage; on the other hand, they’ve had greater success in local competitions.

Yamagata fell behind Kiryu, where the latter crossed the goal line in a noteworthy 10.01, Japan’s second-fastest time ever, in April’s Oda International Memorial meet in Hiroshima. But he got his revenge against the Rakunan High School sprinter in June’s national championships.

So, Kiryu may be faster than Yamagata. Yet you could say that Yamagata is stronger.

But as the 2013 IAAF World Athletics Championships draws near, Yamagata, 21, confessed that he has yet to gain his best form for the Aug. 10-18 event.

“I feel like I’m getting my feelings better, gradually,” Yamagata said after a Thursday news conference at Tokyo’s National Training Center, where the Japan national team spoke to the media before the upcoming world championships. “I still have some technical issues that I need to correct. Technically, what I had last year and what I have this year are completely different.”

Yamagata, a Keio University student, wouldn’t reveal what those problems were. He said that he was trying some new things, and felt they were positive. But, he added, it was a little too early to judge whether those attempts were the answers for the issues.

Team Japan sprint coach Hiroyasu Tsuchie hinted that the way Yamagata kicks the ground is slightly different than how he did last year.

But Tsuchie said that Yamagata is much stronger physically now, and once he regains his opening kicks, he should be a better runner.

“I think he’s getting better and better,” Tsuchie said. “And he should be able to stand at the start line with confidence by the time his races begin in Moscow.”

Despite the technical issues, a goal for Hiroshima Prefecture native Yamagata for worlds was to remain in the semis.

Ironically, he’s now changed that goal to the last eight, which of course means the final, because some of the best sprinters will not be flying to Russia.

Missing American Tyson Gay and Jamaican Asafa Powell, both of whom have failed recent doping tests, could give Yamagata, a big, if not a better, chance to achieve it.

Reigning 100-meter world champion, Yohan Blake of Jamaica, also pulled out due to a hamstring injury. Gay and Blake (9.69 for both) and Powell (9.72) are the world’s second-, third- and fourth-fastest men ever behind two-time-defending Olympic champion Usain Bolt (9.58).

“Well, you could call it a good chance,” said Yamagata, who won the silver medal in the 100 at the World University Games in Kazan, Russia, earlier this month. “I believe that I could go to the final if things will go in favor for me.”

But he had mixed feelings at the same time.

“Generally speaking, you know, I’m a fan of this sport, too, so it’s disappointing that I can’t see some of the top athletes,” Yamagata said with a bitter smile. “It’s also bad that the value of sprinting is going down.

“However,” he continued, “it is a fact that my chance (to remain in the final) has expanded now. Although I’m not happy, I take it as a positive thing.”

Takayoshi Yoshioka, who finished sixth in the Los Angeles Olympics in 1932, has been the only Japanese-born finalist in the 100 at an Olympics or world championships.