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Ekiden guru Susumu Hara calls for big changes to sport

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

With the remarkable achievements he’s accomplished in collegiate ekiden, including four Hakone titles, Susumu Hara could easily rest on his laurels.

Instead, he’s chosen to voice his opinions about what he feels is right in hopes of bringing reform to Japanese track and field.

The Aoyama Gakuin University men’s ekiden coach, said Japanese administrators and other leaders in the sport have to stand up and drastically change the status quo in order to attract more fans and create a deeper pool of potential athletes.

Among the more notable points Hara has brought up is the idea to turn the Tokyo-Hakone Round-Trip College Ekiden Race into a legitimate national championship.

The race, widely known as Hakone Ekiden, is already one of the biggest amateur sporting events in Japan.

Although the longtime new-year tradition, a long-distance road relay, garners massive attention from the public, only schools in the Kanto area are eligible to compete.

Hara has undoubtedly been the most successful ekiden coach in Japan in recent years and has guided his team to the past four Hakone titles.

But the 50-year-old is frustrated nobody has discussed the reformation of the race since he’s broached the subject over the last few years.

“I personally consider the Hakone Ekiden a public and cultural property,” Hara told reporters at the Japan National Press Club on Monday.

Hara, who has coached Aoyama Gakuin since 2004, emphasized that if the sport’s associations and federations maintain their outdated ways of thinking and traditions, Japanese track and field will not go anywhere.

“(Track and field organizations) should discuss together more,” Hara said of the Hakone race. “Otherwise, there’s no development for Japanese athletics. The whole athletics circle or even the whole (Japanese) society has got to talk about it together.”

Hara introduced data that showed nearly 70 percent of the runners who competed for the 20 universities that qualified for last year’s ekiden were from outside the Kanto area. He says the situation causes a talent drain for other regions.

Hara also thinks turning the Hakone Ekiden into a national race would lead to an influx of athletes and an increase in the employment of coaches and scouts across Japan.

“Maybe there would be more local track and field teams, like soccer schools are doing, and they might want to produce athletes who could eventually compete at Hakone,” Hara said of the potential increase in participation.

Hara also spoke about the establishment of a Japan college sports governing body modeled after the National Collegiate Athletics Association. Japan is attempting to create its governing body by using the college sports system in the United States as an example.

The Hiroshima Prefecture native said the main purpose of such an organization should be to raise the value of Japanese collegiate athletics, not to look for financial profit.

“It should be about safety and education,” said Hara, who preaches the importance of academics to his athletes.

Hara, who acknowledges he’s somewhat of a maverick in the track and field world, commented on the environment outside of ekiden and collegiate sports as well. One of the things was about the corporate track and field teams.

Hara said athletes cannot transfer freely to other teams without getting “an approval stamp” from a head coach or manager of their present club. He hinted these stamps are not easily obtained.

He said while the level of competition in the high school and college ranks have been improving, the same can’t be said for corporate teams.

Hara added the corporate teams need to show more unity in order to develop more world-class athletes.

“The coaches and companies have got to have a sense of crisis (for the development of Japanese track and field),” said Hara, who led Aoyama Gakuin to victory in all three of the major collegiate ekidens (the national collegiate championship, the Izumo Ekiden and Hakone) in the 2016-17 season.

Hara said it’s “disappointing” the new National Stadium, which is being built for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and beyond, would only be used for team ball sports, such as soccer, after the games.

Hara feels this outcome was caused by the leaders involved in track and field, because it lacks the popularity to fill the venue and they “have neglected” its promotion.

“We’ve got to think about it seriously,” Hara said. “We’ve got to brainstorm to increase the number of fans of the sport.”