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JAAF looking to raise bar for nation's male sprinters

After 4x100 relay team earned silver in Rio, expectations rise for Japanese to break 10-second barrier

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

The Japan men’s 4×100-meter relay team stunned the world by capturing the silver medal at last summer’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics. And that feat made its compatriots think the future is bright for the nation’s sprinters for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and beyond.

Stunning was indeed the right description because no Japanese sprinter has ever run under 10 seconds, including the relay members.

But Koji Ito, chairman of the High Performance Committee for the Japan Association of Athletics Federations, is confident that 2017 is going to be a breakout year for elite Japanese sprinters and that someone will finally accomplish the feat.

And the former sprinter, who holds the national record of 10.00 seconds in the 100, added that if someone does it, it should not be perceived as a big deal when looking at the sport on the global stage.

“I know the media will write about it when someone runs under 10 seconds,” Ito said after Thursday’s news conference to announce the JAAF’s developmental plans for its national team and athletes in Tokyo. “A sub-10-second time was clocked back in 1968 (the United States’ Jim Hines had a legal hand-timed 9.9 seconds). So it might be a great feat for a Japanese, but when it comes down to the entire world, it doesn’t particularly have a deep meaning.”

A total of 117 sprinters have notched sub-10-second marks using electronic measuring, which includes a pair of Asians (Femi Ogunode and Su Bingtian).

Ito said that the “time is ripe” for Japanese sprinters, such as top runners Yoshihide Kiryu, Ryota Yamagata and Aska Cambridge, to make it happen soon.

Both Kiryu and Yamagata competed in their first race of the season at a meet in Canberra, Australia, last month. Kiryu, who has the second-fastest Japanese time at 10.01, had a 10.04 mark and Yamagata clocked 10.06, easily exceeding the qualification standard for August’s world championships in London.

“I think our (top) sprinters for the 100 have genuinely developed,” Ito said.

Ito is indeed optimistic about the potential of those runners going forward.

“Maybe they will even run under (9.9 seconds),” he said.

The JAAF sets high standards for its athletes. For the men’s 100, it asks its elite sprinters to consistently have sub-10-second marks so they can compete with the world’s top runners on the international stage.

“When you do it (running under 10 seconds) for multiple times, you are going to be qualified for competing for a spot in a final (at the world championships or Olympics).”

Takayoshi Yoshioka is the only Japanese who has ever competed in the 100 final in the Olympics (1932 Los Angeles Games). At Rio last year, Yamagata and Cambridge advanced to the 100 semifinals.

Last month, the JAAF added its own “S qualifying marks” for five disciplines, which it considers Japan having the potential to eventually compete for medals, for the world championships in London. If athletes meet those marks at designated meets by the federation, they will automatically qualify for the world championships without going through June’s national championships in Osaka, which will serve as the trials.

The governing body for Japanese track and field set the S mark for the 100 at 9.89 seconds.

Meanwhile, the JAAF revealed that it will hold training camps for the top marathon runners (both men and women) to prepare for the potential heat at the Tokyo Games.

According to Tadasu Kawano, the JAAF director for the long-distance races and marathon, the national track governing body will gather data to see what kind of physical differences the athletes will show by running in the high temperature and humidity of Tokyo in mid-summer. The JAAF also aims to examine what type of clothes the runners should wear in the summer and what drinks would be appropriate under such an environment.

“We have to know what we need to do in order to get the best out of our athletes,” Kawano said.

Sachiko Yamashita, director of the JAAF women’s marathon, said that it’s meaningful that the federation takes the initiative and collect this information.

“You don’t dare to do it on your own, getting out to run in the heat of Tokyo,” said Yamashita, the women’s marathon silver medalist at the 1991 world championships in Tokyo. “But you’ve got to start acting now. We can do this only this year and next year (considering the timetable toward the Tokyo Olympics).”