INCHEON, SOUTH KOREA – Right out of the starting gate, Japan will face its biggest hurdle in one of the main attractions it had set sights on in the athletics competition at the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea.
With 18-year-old rising sprinting star Yoshihide Kiryu pulling out earlier this month due to a pulled left hamstring, the chances of Japan claiming a top podium finish in the men’s 100 meters have been dampened, especially with Chinese sensation Zhang Peimeng and his countrymen in the mix.
The 18-year-old Kiryu, who ran the second-fastest time in Japan of 10.01 seconds as a high school student last April, is the latest hope for his country to become the first Asian man to run under 10 seconds, but he’ll have to wait for another chance.
Despite chronic pain in his lower back, Ryota Yamagata, who holds a personal best of 10.07, has trained hard for the competition. But an uphill battle awaits him against the likes of Zhang, who ran 10.00 in the semifinals of last year’s world athletics championships.
Japan is gunning for its first top podium finish in the men’s 100 since Koji Ito won the gold in Bangkok in 1998. If not in the 100, Yamagata and his teammates still have a golden opportunity in the men’s 4×100-meter relay.
“There are points that we need to correct (with handing off the baton),” said Yamagata, following a warm-up for the Asian Games at a tournament in Yamagata Prefecture early last week. “I want to be at 100 percent,” he said after his team anchored by Kiryu’s replacement Shota Hara came first in a time of 38.80 seconds.
“I’m not sure what to expect in the actual race (in Incheon) but I want to run at my fullest,” said Hara. Japan was left off the medals podium in the event in Guangzhou in 2010, where China won the race in a games record of 38.78. Japan will be seeking its first gold medal in the event since 1998 in Bangkok.
Japan’s women won the bronze in 2010, with double Asian Games gold medalist Chisato Fukushima as anchor.
“Racing is the best practice. We’ll shoot for the gold medal,” Fukushima said.
Men’s and women’s marathon runners Yuki Kawauchi and Ryoko Kizaki are both among the gold-medal favorites. Kawauchi, whose personal best is 2:08:14, said he is looking forward to racing against rivals, such as Mongolian Serod Batochir.
“Normally, you play a cat-and-mouse game for about 20 to 30 km before making a move. But Batochir might make his move about 5 to 10 km earlier. In this case, the other runners, including us Japanese, have to start the chase early. The fact that you can’t predict what’s going to happen is exciting,” he said.
“There’s Batochir, and a runner from Bahrain (Shumi Dechasa) who runs under two hours, 7 minutes. These two are really strong. But looking at how things can develop in the race, if it comes down to an all-out battle, I have a pretty good shot.”
Dechasa, who switched allegiance from Ethiopia to Bahrain earlier this year, won the 2014 Hamburg Marathon in May in a personal-best 2:06:43.
Asked what he has to be careful of in the weeks leading up to the men’s race on Oct. 3, Kawauchi said, “The main thing is I don’t want to get sick, or even hurt myself a little bit. I have to gradually get into condition.”
Naoto Tobe is within reach of the Japanese record of 2.33 meters in the men’s high jump, but he is nowhere near the heights of Qatari Mutaz Essa Barshim, who owns the Asian record of 2.43.