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JAAF makes changes with 2020 Games looming

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

With the stunning silver-medal performance by the men’s 4×100-meter relay squad, Japan’s track and field team seemed to have left the Rio de Janeiro Olympics on a high note this summer.

But that wasn’t necessarily the case.

Overall, the country ended up with just two medals and two other top-eight finishes, outcomes that sounded alarm bells for the future, especially for the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Japan had set a goal of five top-eight finishes going in the Rio Olympics.

So since the Summer Games in Brazil, the Japan Association of Athletics Federation (JAAF) has been making drastic changes in its development of the national team, subdividing the track and field disciplines more and setting more detailed development plans for each.

“We are in a desperate situation,” Koji Ito, the national 100-meter record holder who has recently been named the federation’s new director of development, said at a Tokyo news conference on Wednesday. “We really don’t have time (until the Tokyo Olympics). We are going to actively utilize the information we can get through medical science technologies while also listening more to what the athletes have to say.”

With the changes, the JAAF has put more emphasis on the disciplines where Japan has a better chance of coming up with favorable outcomes, and medals, in Tokyo, based off the results from Rio and the growth of the nation’s younger athletes.

For instance, the JAAF has designated the 100 meters, 200 meters, 4×100-meter relay, for the men, and race walking for both men and women, as disciplines where Japan has the potential to earn better-colored medals, ideally gold, at the Tokyo Games.

Former Olympic 400-meter hurdler and current Hosei University track team head coach Shunji Karube will be the Olympic development coach for the sprinting disciplines, while Fujitsu head coach Fumio Imamura will take care of the race walking side.

Similarly, other disciplines will have a specially-appointed Olympic coaches. The detailed development plans for each discipline will be introduced later this year by the JAAF.

The men’s 400-meter hurdles, men’s pole vault and men’s and women’s javelin throw will be the events in which Japan will aim for top-eight or podium finishes.

Thirdly, the JAAF has selected seven individual disciplines, including the men’s 800 meters, 110-meter hurdles and decathlon, and a pair of team disciplines, including the men’s 4×400 relay, where it feels Japanese athletes could crack the top-eight.

The federation will also try to further develop disciplines where it expects to get better in the future, such as women’s hurdles, and the men’s and women’s throwing disciplines.

The JAAF also is desperate to revitalize the long-distance and marathon disciplines. Mitsugi Ogata, the JAAF’s senior managing director, said the federation was “shocked with the results that there were zero top-eight finishers in the marathon” in Rio.

The JAAF has brought former star marathoner Toshihiko Seko in as the leader for its development of the long-distance disciplines and marathon.

“He’s observed marathon from different perspectives and he has a rich knowledge about the matter,” Ogata said of Seko, who competed at the 1984 Los Angeles Games and the 1988 Seoul Olympics. “And he’s got the trust of the younger coaches, too.”

Seko, 60, is serving as the manager of the DeNA track team.

Among the long-distance races and the marathon, the women’s long-distance disciplines and men’s and women’s marathon are considered to have the best chance to produce medals.

For the women’s marathon, Sachiko Yamashita, the silver-medalist in the women’s marathon at the 1991 world championships in Tokyo, will be the Olympic development coach.

“As to the marathon, there are such high expectations from the public,” Ogata said. “We are determined to revive it.”

The JAAF had previously paid the most attention to the sprinting and long distance disciplines. Heading toward the 2020 Games, the body has changed its focus and each division will set its goal and work on developing the athletes to meet them.

The JAAF will also devote time to disciplines where Japan isn’t competitive on the global stage at present, but could be in the future.