More Sports / Track & Field

JAAF recognizes top athletes at annual awards banquet

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Post-Olympic years are usually considered down years. But it wasn’t necessarily the case for Japan’s track and field scene, which was highlighted by some notable feats and accomplishments in 2017.

And the country’s elite athletes were rewarded for their hard work throughout the year at the annual Athletics Award at a Tokyo hotel on Tuesday evening.

Race walker Hirooki Arai was given the athlete of the year honor, while the bronze medal-winning men’s 4×100 relay team of Shuhei Tada, Shota Iizuka, Yoshihide Kiryu, Kenji Fujimitsu and Aska Cambridge won the outstanding award.

The award recipients were announced by the Japan Association of Athletics Federations earlier this month.

“I’m extremely honored to have been given such a great award like this,” said Arai, who captured the silver medal in the men’s 50-km walk at this summer’s IAAF World Championships in London.

The 29-year-old veteran, who earned the bronze medal in the same event at last year’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics, said that he was pleased with the fact that all three Japanese representatives for the competition — himself, Kai Kobayashi and Satoshi Maruo — finished in the top five in Britain. Kobayashi crossed the finish line a few seconds behind Arai for the bronze medal.

“We proved that Japan is competitive no matter who competes,” Arai said of the Japan Self Defense Force Physical Training School. “Going forward, I would like to tune up for the Tokyo Olympics to have the best possible result there.”

The Nagano Prefecture native was also glad that race walking has gotten attention from the public.

“When I first made the national team, nobody would care when our senior race walkers made the top eight,” Arai said. “But as we have competed hard with other competitors in the sport over the years, we could eventually have even better results and people have started paying attention to it.”

Sprinting competitions have always been popular disciplines in track and field. With the appearance of new, up-and-coming star runners, Japan’s sprinting has drawn more attention in the last few years. This year, it notched another impressive season.

The men’s relay team stunned the world by winning the silver medal at the 2016 Rio Games, and it proved the feat wasn’t a fluke this summer, when Japan finished third at worlds.

Iizuka was pleased that they have been able to contribute to the country’s track and field scene, gaining more media coverage recently.

“People have begun paying attention to our sport and we’ve gotten more exposure in the media,” Iizuka said. “And we’ve seen more fans in the stands at competitions now. I’m excited to be competing in these circumstances.”

Another historic feat for Japan was Kiryu’s sub-10-second performance in September. The 22-year-old became the first Japanese to run under 10 seconds, clocking 9.98 at the national collegiate meet in Fukui. He received the special award.

Also, teenage phenom Abdul Hakim Sani Brown had a remarkable year. The 18-year-old completed a double in the men’s 100 and 200 at June’s national championships in Osaka. He also advanced to the 200 final at worlds.

What’s promising with these athletes is that none of them seem to be satisfied with their respective feats from this year.

Kiryu, for instance, surely made history, but failed to earn tickets at nationals to compete in individual disciplines at the world championships.

“I had both good moments and disappointing moments this year,” said Kiryu, who will graduate from Toyo University next spring. “I improved my record, but I don’t think I can compete on par in the world yet. I want to be a fast and competitive athlete going forward.”

Sani Brown is looking way above where he is right now, too.

“I came up with some good results at the world championships, but they are not what I can be satisfied with,” said the 18-year-old, who upgraded his personal bests in 100 and 200 to 10.05 and 20.32, respectively, this year. “I would like to keep working hard taking advantage of these experiences for next year and the Olympics.”

Sani Brown, who was born to a Japanese mother and a Ghanian father, has attended the University of Florida since the fall, seems to be enjoying his athletic and academic life in the United States.

“It’s been four months, and I feel I’ve gotten used to the new circumstances,” said Sani Brown, who added that he was surprised that the Florida track team completely takes Saturdays off.

Yuka Ando, who ran a Japanese record of 2 hours, 21 minutes, 36 seconds (fourth-best Japanese record) for a marathon debutant at March’s Nagoya Women’s Marathon, Tada and Kobayashi were selected as the top newcomers at the 11th edition of the Athletics Award.

Meanwhile, Koji Ito has stepped down as the JAAF’s development director. Vice director Kazunori Asaba will assume Ito’s position.

The 47-year-old Ito, who held the 100 national record of 10.00 before Kiryu broke it, took over the position in September 2016. JAAF managing director Mitsugi Ogata told reporters during the Athletics Award that Ito informed the national governing body that it had become difficult to serve in that position while also working as a professor at Konan University in Kobe.

But the news came out of the blue because Ito was believed to have contributed to the positive results Japan has had both internationally and domestically.

This is the third change of the development director since 2015.