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Japan men's 4x100 relay team working hard to claim gold at 2020 Tokyo Olympics

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

The Japanese men’s 4×100-meter relay team is absolutely serious about shooting for the gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The team has had success at global tournaments in recent years thanks to its exceptional teamwork. But the sprinters and their coaching staff acknowledge that the ultimate goal of winning gold on home soil won’t be easy to accomplish, and that they will each have to raise the bar individually.

On Sunday, the provisional national team held a one-day training camp at Tokyo’s National Training Center to kick off its quest.

Japan captured its first-ever Olympic silver medal with a new national record of 37.60 seconds in the men’s 4×100 at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, and last year marked another successful season.

Yoshihide Kiryu became the first Japanese to break the 10-second barrier, clocking 9.98 last fall, while then-18-year-old phenom Abdul Hakim Sani Brown advanced to the men’s 200-meter final, finishing seventh, at the world championships in London. Japan’s men’s 4×100 relay team also claimed the bronze medal at that competition.

Kazuhiko Yamazaki, the track and field director for the Japan Association of Athletics Federations, insisted after the training camp that it was time for the relay team to begin a new phase, saying “the time is ripe.” The 46-year-old said that the top priority for them will be to concentrate more on improving their own running ability, to help the relay team finish atop the podium in 2020.

“We want more guys to run under 10 seconds as soon as possible,” said Yamazaki, who finished seventh in the men’s 400-meter hurdles at the 1995 world championships in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Top athlete Ryota Yamagata hopes to meet the demands of Yamazaki and JAAF as quickly as he can.

“I need to run under 10 seconds. That’s what I have to do first,” said Yamagata, who tied the country’s second-best mark of 10.00 last fall. “And then we will have to work on the accuracy of our baton relay.”

The JAAF has also hammered out another policy to develop the relay team: It will let the relay sprinters polish their skills through actual races rather than working on their chemistry through training camps.

To begin with, there will be 4×100 relay competitions for both the men and women at the upcoming Seiko Golden Grand Prix at Osaka’s Yanmar Stadium on May 20. Japan is scheduled to have two senior teams and the under-20 national team in the men’s race at the event. The Japanese squads will take on the United States (including Justin Gatlin), as well as Asian rivals China and South Korea.

One of Japan’s relay teams at the Golden Grand Prix will likely be formed from the Rio Olympic members — Yamagata, Shota Iizuka, Kiryu and Aska Cambridge.

After the Golden Grand Prix, Japan is set to dispatch the men’s team to the July 21-22 Diamond League London meet. It will then compete at the Asian Games, where it will seek the gold medal, from Aug. 18-Sept. 2 in Jakarta. The Golden Grand Prix is one of the domestic trials for the Asiad.

The reason that Japan has decided to place more emphasis on actual competitions is not so complicated. As conventional wisdom dictates, there is no better training than competitions.

“We have been told (by our staff) that we will try to enhance our precision (of baton relays and timings) through competitions,” the 25-year-old Yamagata said. “And for the Seiko Golden Grand Prix, some competitive countries like China will come. While we will try to win it, if we have some errors it will be important not repeat them in the next competition. That’ll be our first step.”

Although he did not participate in the training camp as he is busy with school work and training at the University of Florida, the JAAF is counting on Sani Brown for the Tokyo Olympics.

“We are going to have to let him run at some point,” said Hiroyasu Tsuchie, who serves as an Olympic development coach for the men’s sprinting disciplines. “It could be the Asian Games or we could travel to America to compete with him. We’d like to make some opportunities for him to run with us.”