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After one-medal showing in London, Japan track team aims for better performance in Rio

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

With less than a month until the track and field competition begins at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, the Japanese delegation for the sport assembled at Tokyo’s National Training Center for a send-off event hosted by the Japan Association of Athletics Federations on Friday.

Kazunori Asaba, the delegation’s head coach, said during the event that Team Japan set these goals for Brazil: to win one medal and have five top-eight finishes.

The first day of the track and field program at the Olympics is Aug. 12 and will continue until Aug. 21.

The team currently consists of 47 athletes and 26 staff members. A men’s 4×400 relay team could be added later.

At the London Games four years ago, hammer thrower Koji Murofushi provided the only track and field medal for Japan (bronze), while the country had a pair of top-eight finishes in the men’s 4×100 relay and Kentaro Nakamoto in the men’s marathon.

Takayuki Tanii, who captured the bronze medal in the men’s 50-km race walk at last year’s world championships in Beijing, men’s javelin thrower Ryohei Arai, who’s competed in a couple of Diamond League meets this year, and the men’s 4×100 relay team are among Japan’s prospects who have the potential to earn a medal.

Veteran pole vaulter Daichi Sawano and javelin thrower Yuki Ebihara were named the captains for the men’s and women’s squads, respectively.

Ebihara, who’s making her second straight Olympic appearance, said that she was content with going to the Summer Games in 2012, but this time the national-record knows she’s asked to do more.

“I’d like to lead the women’s squad by example,” said the 30-year-old, who had the same role four years ago as well. “I wasn’t really able to do anything as the captain in London, so hopefully I’ll do it better.”

Sawano, who competed at the 2004 Athens and 2008 Beijing Games but missed out on London, said that he’s excited to be back on the Olympic stage.

“As four years have passed (since I missed the London Games), it feels it’s been short and it feels it’s been a long time,” said the 35-year-old Sawano, the national-record holder. “Having missed the Olympics, it’s actually made me strive for competing in (the Rio) Games more.”

Meanwhile, young men’s triple jumper Kohei Yamashita has never competed outside of Japan and can’t even imagine what it would be like to hit the sand at the Olympics.

“I’ve only seen the Olympics through TV,” the 21-year-old said with a bitter smile. “I watched the triple jump for London, seeing Christian Taylor winning the gold medal and other top jumpers. It gives me a special feeling that I have the possibility to compete with those elite athletes.”

Yamashita’s father, Norifumi, is also a former triple jumper, who notched 17.15 meters in 1986, which is the national record that still stands to this day.

Both Ebihara and Sawano also said that how the Japanese athletes perform at the Rio Olympics would be important for the sport in the country and athletes of the younger generations.

“We have the home Olympics in Tokyo (in 2020), and we are going to have to make younger athletes think that they want to go to the Olympics through the Rio Games,” Ebihara said. “Our junior and youth athletes are doing good. So we’ll have to make this Olympics that will inspire them.”

Said Sawano: “Our younger guys are getting more competitive and I’ve been inspired as well. And this is what I’ve wanted. It’s big for Japan’s pole vault. This is one of the steps toward Tokyo (Olympics).”

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