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Japan sprinters return from Europe with renewed focus, passion to improve

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Japan set a lofty goal of capturing the gold medal in the men’s 4×100-meter relay at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

As has been repeatedly said, raising individual skills is the biggest key to achieving that feat. And working diligently in Japan and overseas is a big part of that.

After spending three weeks in Europe for training camps and races, Japan’s national team relay members returned to their homeland on Tuesday. The group included national 100-meter record holder Yoshihide Kiryu, Aska Cambridge, Shota Iizuka, Ryota Yamagata and newcomer Yuki Koike, among others. The team was based in Madrid.

While each athlete participated in a few individual races around Europe, the relay team competed in the 4×100 race at the Diamond League meet at London Stadium on Sunday to wrap up the trip.

In the race, Team Japan placed second behind Britain with a time of 38.09 seconds. The home team clocked a season-best 37.61 at the venue for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Knowing that there are just two years until the Tokyo Games, the result of the race provided a sense of urgency for some Japan relay members.

Iizuka, a veteran 200-meter specialist, told reporters at Haneda airport after the team’s arrival that how Britain performed in the relay race was an eye-opening experience to him.

“Britain was very fast, extremely fast,” said Iizuka, who was part of Japan’s medal-winning teams at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics and last year’s IAAF World Championships in London.

Iizuka competed against Zharnel Hughes in the second leg and felt he was overwhelmed by the Anguilla native.

“He had won in the 100 (9.97 seconds) on the previous day,” Iizuka said of Hughes. “I thought I could manage to keep up with him, but he was very fast.”

Iizuka added that Britain isn’t as skilled in its baton handoffs, which is Japan’s unmatched skill in the event, and it made him amazed that the winners still performed as well as they did.

“They still ran as fast as near our national record (37.60, which Japan notched at the Rio Games),” he said. “So we can’t beat them unless we perform near our own national record.”

The Japanese sprinters said that their baton handoffs have become even more elaborate than before. But they insisted that they would have to upgrade their individual performances to improve their relay team in order to have a shot at claiming the Olympic gold.

“We could shorten our time by about 0.3 seconds at best with our baton relays,” Iizuka said. “So the most important thing is our individual sprinting ability. There’s no question about it.”

Kiryu, who broke the long-standing national record in the 100 (9.98) last year, looked back on the European trip positively, because he felt he got better with his individual performances.

“I think I was able to improve myself in Switzerland,” said Kiryu, who came up with a season-best 10.10 seconds and finished third (ahead of Justin Gatlin, who clocked 10.13) in a July 18 meet in Bellinzona, Switzerland.

“I was running on par with (Michael) Rodgers (who won the race in 9.92) and Gatlin in the first 50 meters,” said Kiryu, the only Japanese to run the race in under 10 seconds. “I’m going to have to keep my top speed until the end.”

For the 4×100 relay in London, Japan planned to use the same quartet as the silver medal-winning foursome from Rio two years ago. But Yamagata pulled out of the race last weekend due to a light muscle problem in his left thigh and Koike replaced him as the first-leg runner.

Koike has shown notable growth this year. At the national championship in June, the 23-year-old finished fourth in a narrowly battled 100 race, while he finished runnerup behind Iizuka in the 200. The Hokkaido native had a 20.29 mark in the 200 (the country’s seventh-fastest time at that distance) earlier this month.

Koike, who will compete at the upcoming Asian Games in Jakarta, said that he wanted to get acclimated to racing at the highest level as soon as possible.

“I would like to compete more in races and make it normal to compete against people who I’ve seen only on TV,” Koike said. “That’s the No. 1 priority for me now.”

With Yamagata’s absence in the spotlight, Japan demonstrated its 4×100 relay unit’s improving depth.

“Our baton handoffs are going to go well no matter who we have,” Iizuka said.

For instance, at the Golden Grand Prix meet in Osaka in May, Japan’s top-flight team (Yamagata, Iizuka, Kiryu and Cambridge) posted 37.85 seconds for the victory.