Japan medal hopes fading


OSAKA — The home-nation advantage has not provided much of a spark for Japan at the 2007 IAAF World Athletics Championships.

Ed Odeven

After five days of competition, Japan’s top showing was in the meet’s opening event, the men’s marathon.

Tsuyoshi Ogata, Satoshi Osaki and Toshinari Suwa ended their two-plus hours of work in fifth through seventh spots, respectively. As a result, Japan’s endurance runners ensured the host nation would defend its Marathon World Cup title (the team race within the race). And that’s something Japanese fans should be happy about.

The meet, however, has had more disappointing moments than highlights for Japan. (The event as a whole, though, has been one stellar showing of great athletes pushing themselves to be No. 1.)

Wednesday, for example, was a particularly mediocre day for Team Japan.

In the women’s 1,500-meter race, Mika Yoshikawa placed 11th in her qualifying heat in 4 minutes, 21.64 seconds.

Emika Yoshida was 12th in qualifying for the women’s javelin with a toss of 49.70 meters. Cuba’s Sonia Bisset took the fourth spot, the final one to advance from the group with a toss of 60.25.

In the men’s long jump, Daisuke Arakawa finished 14th with a leap of 7.62 meters in Group A qualifying. Seven moved on to the next round, including the United States’ Trevell Quinley, who was air-borne for a distance of 7.99 meters.

In the women’s 200, Sakie Nobuoka was seventh — last — in her qualifying heat, finishing the race in 23.74 seconds. It was her season-best time, so that’s a quick step in the right direction.

Fumiyo Yoshida had a 16th-place effort in the triple jump’s qualifying (12.62 meters). The top six reached the next round out of the group, including No. 6 performer Dana Veldakova of Russia, who had a mark of 14.20.

There was one glimmer of hope on the day.

Kayoko Fukushi, seventh in the first heat of the women’s 5,000, provided a positive jolt of news. She secured a spot in Saturday’s final at 8:30 p.m., completing the race in 15:19.67. Turkey’s Elvan Abeylegesse won the heat in 15:06.26.

Last Saturday, it appears, provided an omen of things to come from Team Japan.

There was men’s hammer thrower Koji Murofushi, the 2004 Athens Olympic gold medalist, showing somewhat shaky form on his first toss (73.1) and then regrouping to toss the hammer 77.25, book a ticket to the finals and give the home fans a happy moment.

And there was 400-meter hurdler Dai Tamesue, a two-time bronze medalist at worlds, fading down the stretch and finishing sixth among seven participants in his first-round race.

Tamesue’s instant, visible frustration after the race put the many non-medal efforts of Team Japan into a single snapshot, as if to say this: If only I had run faster, jumped higher or longer or tossed the object a few more centimeters.

Murofushi returned to the grand stage on Monday night, but did not fulfill his gold-medal quest; he placed sixth. At the same time, it was a big step forward for Murofushi, who had his three top throws of the season on the night.

The 13-time national champ sees the big picture. He is in preparation mode for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and in post-event interviews expressed his satisfaction with the improvements he has made since arriving in Osaka.

It’s been a challenging year for Murofushi. He had taken time away from his training this season to complete his Ph.D, so it’s appropriate to applaud his efforts to get back on track as an athlete. In the years to come, Murofushi has time to become a successful figure in academic circles. I wouldn’t bet against it.

His sister, Yuko Murofushi, was a non-medal contender in the women’s discus, unable to make the final 12.

The list goes on . . .

The personable Kumiko Ikeda didn’t make it to the long jump final.

Shingo Suetsugu, a bronze medalist at the 2003 worlds in Paris, was eliminated from the 200-meter gold hunt in the second round.

Big names, big disappointments (Ikeda and Suetsugu). Japanese fans had hopes for better, had wanted to make a celebratory toast to them.

Competition concludes on Sunday and the wait continues.

Team Japan has a golden opportunity to end the meet with a sterling showing in the women’s marathon, just like it did in the meet-opening event.

The race begins at 7 a.m. with a strong group of Japanese runners led by Yumiko Hara and Mari Ozaki, who placed 1-2 in the Osaka International Ladies Marathon and Reiko Tosa, the 2001 World Championships silver medalist.

Good luck to all of them. Japanese supporters want to have a reason to jump for joy, want their sporting stars to provide lasting memories. Just like marathon runner Mizuki Noguchi did in Athens.