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Japan sprinters hungry for greater success

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Another medal-earning feat by the Japan men’s 4×100-meter relay team at the IAAF World Athletics Championships in London was certainly an encouraging sign, and now it hopes to achieve its ultimate goal: winning a gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

That, of course, will not be an easy task.

Japan claimed a silver medal in the 4×100 relay at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and again at last summer’s Rio de Janeiro Games, and grabbed bronze in Britain last week. Yet each time, the Japanese benefited from some kind of luck, such as elite teams being disqualified or making mistakes in baton exchanges.

Such was the case this time in London as well. Japan finished third, but would probably have missed a spot on the podium had Usain Bolt, running the anchor leg for Jamaica, not pulled up with a hamstring injury.

On the bright side, Team Japan has added depth in the relay, which has become a strength. This was proven at worlds, where Japan took bronze without either Aska Cambridge or Abdul Hakim Sani Brown running in the final. Cambridge, who was in a slump, was substituted, with veteran Kenji Fujimitsu moving up before the final, while 18-year-old Sani Brown, who advanced to the 200 final, rested due to a mild injury.

“We have had six sprinters who have run in sub-10.1 seconds this year alone,” Fujimitsu said after the Japan national team returned home on Tuesday. “That’s evidence our overall sprinting ability has improved.”

Yoshihide Kiryu, one of Japan’s ace sprinters, has notched 10.01, the country’s second-best time ever, twice — in 2013 and 2016 — in his career. The 21-year-old, who is a Toyo University runner, insists he’s grown as an athlete since running 10.01 for the first time as a high school senior.

“On the surface, you might think my personal best has not improved,” said Kiryu, who did not qualify for individual disciplines for the world championships this year. “But I clocked a sub-10.1 seconds running in a headwind this year. Before, I was only able to do it when I had a tailwind.”

But Fujimitsu insisted that Japan has to work harder to get the result it wants.

“We have not broken the national record of 10.0 seconds (set by Koji Ito 17 years ago),” he said. “Hakim wasn’t able to advance to the final in the 100. We still have a lot of issues we need to overcome.”

Fujimitsu also said Japanese runners have got to have their top performances when it matters most. He noted that the overall times at this year’s world championships were not as fast as they usually are and that there were more upsets, pointing out a greater chance to make something big happen. But most of the Japanese athletes struggled to deliver.

“As much as times and marks are important, you have to outcompete your opponents,” the 31-year-old said. “That’s another issue we have going forward.”

In London, as was the case at the 2016 Rio Games, Japan was the only one of eight teams in the 4×100 final that did not have a single runner with a sub-10.0 personal best. But outstanding baton exchanges have given the Japanese a slight advantage.

The world is starting to catch on, however.

Shota Iizuka, who served as the second-leg runner for Japan in Rio and London, would not say other countries have begun emulating Japan, which has adopted an underhand baton exchange. But he feels they have gotten better at not slowing down during exchanges.

“I think Britain had practiced a lot going in (the world championships),” Iizuka said of the 4×100 relay gold medalists. “Maybe we’ve given them a little influence.

“There weren’t teams that used the underhand passing (France actually used it), but I think the level of the baton exchange has raised. Britain was really good and they took advantage of it (to win the gold medal).”

Japan is developing into a legitimate gold-medal contender in the discipline, but other countries are also trying to improve.

The quest for the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics will not be easy to achieve.