Sprinter Yamagata aims for success at Rio Games

Hiroshima Prefecture native targets sub-10-second time in 100 meters

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Despite coming up short in the national championships, Olympic-bound sprinter Ryota Yamagata has high expectations for himself at the upcoming Rio de Janeiro Games.

The 24-year-old, who finished runner-up to Aska Cambridge by 0.01 seconds for a 10.17 mark in the men’s 100-meter final at nationals last Saturday in Nagoya, said on Thursday that he was confident he can accomplish great things in Brazil if he can tweak his performance.

“At nationals, I didn’t do well on my starts in the preliminary and semifinal rounds, so I tried to fix it for the final,” Yamagata said in Tokyo. “In the final, I had a good start and I could say I had the best race (in the tournament), but I got a little stiff later in it and it cost (the first place).”

The Japan Association of Athletics Federations selected Yamagata, Cambridge and Yoshihide Kiryu for its 100-meter squad for Rio.

Overall, Yamagata has performed well during this Olympic year. In early June, he notched a new personal-best time of 10.06 seconds, the fifth-fastest time for a Japanese, at a local meet in Tottori.

On the contrary, last year was a nightmare for the Hiroshima Prefecture native. The sprinter struggled with severe lower back pain and lost much of the season, missing the world championships in Beijing.

But Yamagata didn’t lament what happened during the 2015 season too much, because he believes it made him a tougher athlete, physically and mentally.

“It took me a long time for me to get back here,” he said. “But because I went through the time, I believe I’m here with the ticket for the Rio Olympics. It was a valuable lesson for me.”

Four years ago, Yamagata gave a strong impression for Japanese track fans when he ran the 100 with a then-personal best of 10.07 seconds in the preliminary round and advanced to the semifinals at the London Olympics.

This time in Rio, Yamagata aims to achieve a bigger feat.

“I would like to be the first Japanese to run (under-10 seconds) and be a finalist in the Olympics,” he said. “I think I’m in a position to do that. In London, I got stiff in the semifinals. But if I don’t get stiff this time, I believe I can do it.”

Takayoshi Yoshioka ran in the men’s 100m gold-medal race at the 1932 Los Angeles Games. He remains the only Japanese sprinter to accomplish the feat in the Olympics.

Shinji Hattori, president of Seiko Holdings Corporation, at which Yamagata is an employee, said that the sprinter would be presented a ¥50 million-plus, special-made luxury watch if he makes it to the final or posts a sub-10 second mark at the Rio Games.

“I’ve been able to correct my issues every race this year, and it will lead to a sub-10-second mark if I keep it up,” Yamagata said. “If I’ll eliminate my issues that I had at nationals, I think it’s possible to make it happen.”

He’s also fired up that he could contribute for his country in the 4×100 relay in Rio because no matter which four runners are selected to take the track, Japan arguably will have its best-ever relay quartet at the Olympics.

Japan won the bronze medal in the discipline in the Beijing Olympics, but Yamagata looks for a better outcome this year.

“I believe that we’ve got a squad that we can have a lot of high expectations this time,” Yamagata said. “We should aim at a better result than in Beijing.”