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The 2021 Tokyo-Hakone Round-Trip College Ekiden Race concluded as a last-mile thriller between the eventual winner Komazawa University and runner-up Soka University.

But the latest edition of the biggest New Year sporting tradition in Japan delivered many other intriguing topics.

One of the most talked-about stories was the number of fans seen along the roadsides of the 217.1-km route amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to organizers, this year’s race saw a total of 180,000 spectators on the sidewalks during the two-day event, an 85% decrease from the 1,210,000 who came out for the 2020 race. The 2014 edition’s crowd of 1,260,000 was the largest of the last decade.

Unlike most other sports, marathons and ekidens are free, unticketed events, making it tough for hosts to keep bystanders completely away. Yet Hakone organizers tried their best to dissuade fans from coming, placing officials at various points along the course who held up signs discouraging gatherings.

Organizers blocked fans from traditionally popular gathering spots, including the start and finish areas at Tokyo’s Otemachi business district, Lake Ashi and the stations between each leg.

Nippon Television, which has carried live broadcasts since 1987, repeatedly displayed messages urging spectators not to attend. The Yomiuri Shimbun, a co-organizer of the event, did not hand out its traditional small flags to the spectators, while newspapers were not allowed to distribute extra editions at Otemachi.

“With all the support from our partners, we were able to manage to host the race while preparing countermeasures for the coronavirus,” said Hiroyoshi Higuma, who serves as the vice president of the Inter-University Athletic Union of Kanto, the Hakone ekiden’s main organizer. “We had 180,000 spectators. It might have looked crowded through TV screens, but I’ve seen this race over 30 years and it was far less crowded in person. Places like Kowakien (in Hakone), Yokohama Station and Nihonbashi (near the finish point) had surprisingly few people.

“I was a college junior when the race was first televised, but probably there were fewer fans (this year) than that time. With the cooperation of the media, we feel that our safety measures worked out.”

Hakone, the Izumo ekiden and the national championships are the sport’s three major collegiate events. Izumo’s 2020 edition in October was called off in the wake of the pandemic.

The relatively smaller number of fans along the route still came under scathing criticism on social media, with Twitter users attacking their decision to attend despite the warnings from organizers. Other expressed concern at the large number of older spectators, who are considered to have a higher risk of severe symptoms if infected with the coronavirus, present at the event.

Although the Tokyo Olympics’ marathon and race walking competitions have been relocated out of capital, the events of this past weekend leave concerns about what could happen when Sapporo hosts those disciplines if the pandemic has not settled by this summer.

Nike dominates shoe wars

Another subject hotly discussed by ekiden fans has been the footwear used by participating runners. A growing number of athletes have worn Nike’s thick-soled kicks at Hakone over the last few years, and that trend grew even stronger this year.

According to Japanese media reports, 201 out of the 210 runners who competed on Saturday and Sunday used either the Air Zoom Alphafly Next% or ZoomX Vaporfly Next%, both manufactured by the Oregon-based sports apparel giant.

That’s an increase of 24 over the 177 who wore the swoosh a year ago.

Among those wearing Nike were all 10 athletes representing gold medal-winning Komazawa, which captured its first Hakone title since 2008.

Five-time Hakone champion Aoyama Gakuin is endorsed by Adidas, yet all but one of its runners competed with Nike shoes.

Other sports apparel companies have produced shoes similar to Nike’s concept, using thick soles and carbon plates. But it did not help put on the brake on Nike’s dominance at Hakone.

Also noteworthy was that not a single runner competed wearing major Japanese footwear manufacturer Asics. According to Ekiden News, the company recorded its highest percentage of runners in Hakone’s 2017 edition.

Feel-good story

There’s no doubt that the biggest shocker of the 2021 Hakone ekiden was the remarkable performance by Soka.

Adding to the feel-good nature of the Hachioji-based school’s success is that two of its runners competed while coping with the same vision disorder.

Juniors Yudai Shimazu and Daisuke Nagai suffer from retinitis pigmentosa, which limits their vision in darker environments.

For two years in a row, Shimazu has drawn the attention of fans with his stellar performances at Hakone. He set a new 10th-leg record with a time of 1 hour, 8 minutes and 40 seconds, to help his team come up with its then-best ninth-place finish at the 2020 edition.

This year, he competed as Soka’s fourth-leg runner and took the lead, which his team maintained until faltering with 2 kilometers left in the race.

Nagai made his Hakone debut this year running in the eighth leg for Soka, which made only its fourth appearance in the competition.

According to reports, Nagai decided to enroll at Soka because he had learned Shimazu would also be entering the school.

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