Athletics squad faces pressure in Beijing


There was a mild dose of optimism Japan would collect a bunch of medals at the 2007 IAAF World Athletics Championships in Osaka. Some said the nation’s athletes would benefit from the home stadium advantage and the fact they were acclimated to the hot, humid summers in Kansai.

It didn’t happen.

The lone bright spot for Japan came on the final day of competition when Reiko Tosa earned a bronze medal in the women’s marathon on Sept. 2.

Now, naturally, the Japan Association of Athletics Federations (JAAF) hopes its athletes produce better results on a bigger stage, the 2008 Beijing Summer Games. The athletic events are slated for Aug. 15-24.

After the conclusion of the 2008 Japan Track and Field National Championships on June 29, JAAF technical director Susumu Takano pointed out to reporters why he believes Japan failed so miserably at the 2007 World Championships.

“Track and field is an individual sport, but from my experience — I’ve been to the Olympics three times as an athlete and twice as an official — it’s pretty important to have a good flow as a team,” Takano said at Todoroki Stadium in Kawasaki. “We didn’t have that last year (at worlds), as I was seeing their training camps and other things.”

So where does the Japan Olympic track and field team go from here? Will it collect zero medals? Or is it ready to step up to the challenge of being a formidable medal contender in numerous events?

Takano, a former 400-meter specialist, hopes it’s the latter.

“As far as figures are concerned, we are expected to win some medals in the Olympics, as well as a number of top-eight finishes,” he predicted.

At the top of the list are two individuals: reigning women’s marathon champion Mizuki Noguchi and Koji Murofushi, the defending men’s hammer gold medalist.

Dai Tamesue, a two-time bronze medalist at worlds in the 400-meter hurdles, is another athlete who has demonstrated the ability to compete at the highest level. The same could be said for Tosa and Yurika Nakamura (the surprise winner at the 2008 Nagoya Women’s International Marathon, her marathon debut), who give Japan solid depth in the women’s marathon.

“We have some guys that have won medals at world championships,” Takano said, “yet the world is not easy to beat.”

Takano should know. He competed against the world’s best in 1984 in Los Angeles, 1988 in Seoul and 1992 in Barcelona, Spain.

As one of the JAAF’s elder statesman, Takano’s words carry weight when he speaks to the national team athletes.

“I want to say ‘nice job’ to those who made it today,” he said, repeating his message after nationals. “But the main event has yet to come.”

Takano paused, and then he added these forceful words: “If you already have achieved records or marks, making the Olympics shouldn’t be your goal. You have to compete highly in the Olympics.”

Looking back at nationals, there were few surprises, and that was a good thing in Takano’s perspective.

“I think it was a relief that those who were supposed to win were able to win after all,” he said. “These guys understood the importance of the national championships. . . . They knew, first of all, they had to win by any means.

“I had a chance to go to the warmup area and felt the tension they were feeling. I felt that they were thinking of winning rather than having good records.”

It’s easier, of course, to think about winning than, well, doing it.

Just ask Takano. He has served as sprinter Shingo Suetsugu’s coach in the past, and he was there at Todoroki Stadium to see the veteran athlete’s hour of disappointment a month ago.

Suetsugu, the perennial national champion in the 200 meters who has been hampered by injuries in recent years, placed a distance third at nationals behind Shinji Takahira (20.74 seconds) and Hitoshi Saito (20.84), wrapping up his work in 21.16.

In 2003, Suetsugu etched his name in the Asian athletics annals, setting a continental-record time of 20.03 seconds in the 200 and then weeks later collecting a bronze medal at the IAAF World Championships in Paris.

Five years later, he was named to his fourth Olympiad, eclipsing the mark of his mentor.

Here’s the rationale behind that decision: The JAAF is putting faith in Suetsugu to be a positive influence on the younger sprinters and to improve his performance in Beijing.

“Some reported he had an injury,” Takano said of Suetsugu. “But he didn’t at all. Simply, he couldn’t perform well. I guess he has to refresh his mind.”

And so Suetsugu, now 28, will lace up his track shoes once again and attempt to prove that he can still be a force to be reckoned with on the global stage.

It won’t be easy, and it shouldn’t be.

Winning medals is a special accomplishment. The Japan Olympic track and field team’s athletes, 36 to be precise, know that as well as anyone.

Their grand test begins in a few weeks. The world will be watching.

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this article.