Wearing the official Japanese Olympic team uniform, a pinstriped sports coat and gray pants, and with silver medals hanging from their necks, the Japanese 4×100-meter relay team gave an impromptu demonstration of their baton-passing skills for a curious crowd of onlookers. They swung their arms as if they were actually running and passed the baton between them as if it was second nature.
Just as they did in Rio.
The Japanese team of Ryota Yamagata, Shota Iizuka, Yoshihide Kiryu and Aska Cambridge captured one of the most unexpected silver medals of the entire Rio Olympics when it finished in an Asian-record 36.60 seconds to place behind Usain Bolt and Jamaica in the 4×100 relay final in Rio de Janeiro. They recounted some of their experiences on Monday, answering questions in the order in which they ran the race (Yamagata, Iizuka, Kiryu and Cambridge), at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan.
“I believe the result was able to give more confidence to sprinters in Japan,” Cambridge said. “Of course the baton is part of this as well, but the individual achievements of all of the members is something that also contributed to this race. The fact we were able to achieve second place next to Jamaica, and although the United States was disqualified, being able to come ahead of them, America is known as being a strong team as well, really shows that Japan can compete on this world stage.”
The second-place finish was historic for Japanese track and field. The country’s only other medal in the event came during the 2008 Beijing Games when Naoki Tsukahara, Shingo Suetsugu, Shinji Takahira and Nobuharu Asahara earned bronze behind the Jamaicans, with Bolt running the third leg, and Trinidad and Tobago.
The 2016 quartet did that group one better and Japan will be hoping to take the next step during the 2020 Games in Tokyo.
The Japanese may have surprised some with their speed, but it was their flawless exchange of the baton which really turned heads. The exchange is an often-overlooked and under-practiced element of the relay despite the trouble it has caused many teams over the years. The Japanese runners left no stone unturned during their preparation for Rio and it showed on the track.
“From the time we started working together toward the relay, we had great teamwork,” Kiryu said. “We didn’t even have any baton misses during practices. I have heard teams from other countries perhaps did not put so much practice into the exchange. However our team has been practicing the baton pass since winter and I believe this was a great factor in the success we were able to achieve.”
They laid the foundation for their historic run with an Asian-record time of 37.68 seconds in their semifinal heat.
In the final, Yamagata got Japan off to a solid start in the first leg while running the same leg as former 100-meter world record-holder Asafa Powell.
“As the first runner, my goal was to achieve a good start and pass this on to the second runner,” Yamagata said.
Iizuka and Kiryu held serve in the second and third legs to get the baton to Cambridge, who started basically neck-and-neck with Bolt.
“When I saw Cambridge taking the baton right next to Jamaica’s Bolt, I can’t even express the emotion I felt,” Iizuka said. “I was so excited.”
For a few seconds, before Bolt fully unfurled his 195-cm frame and hit a gear most humans simply don’t have, Cambridge, a 23-year-old of Jamaican and Japanese descent, was next to him, running stride for stride with the fastest man in the history of the world.
“To be honest, I don’t remember exactly what I was thinking at the time,” Cambridge said. “But when I got the baton, I really thought, ‘oh, we can actually win this.’ ”
Pleased with their performance in Rio, the four runners are hoping to improve both their individual results and also grab gold in the relay in four years’ time.
“I believe our result was able to show that Japanese have the capacity for this type of running,” Iizuka said. “So I hope that we can carry this over to Tokyo.”