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The Japan Association of Athletics Federations announced its award recipients for the 2020 season on Thursday with long-distance track runner Hitomi Niiya capturing the Athlete of the Year accolade.

Niiya broke Yoko Shibui’s 18-year-old national record in the women’s 10,000 at December’s national championships for long-distance disciplines at Osaka’s Nagai Stadium. She booked a spot at this summer’s Tokyo Limits with her record time of 30 minutes and 20.44 seconds.

The 32-year-old, who came out of a five-year retirement in 2018, set a new national record of 1:06:38 at the Houston Half Marathon in January 2020 as well.

“I’m extremely happy and at the same time it’s an award that makes me feel that I need to keep pushing myself, and I wouldn’t have won an award like this without the support of my fans and those who have been associated with me,” Niiya told an online news conference.

The awards, usually revealed in a ballroom ceremony at the end of the year, were announced on the federation’s website and Twitter account due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Describing her accomplishments as “past glories,” Niiya said she wants to prepare for a strong 2021 that will include her first Olympic appearance in eight years.

Hitomi Niiya, who competed in the 5,000 and 10,000 at the 2012 London Olympics, qualified for the Tokyo Games with her performance at last month's national championships for long-distance disciplines. | REUTERS
Hitomi Niiya, who competed in the 5,000 and 10,000 at the 2012 London Olympics, qualified for the Tokyo Games with her performance at last month’s national championships for long-distance disciplines. | REUTERS

“I don’t have much to say based on what I did last year, because I’ve pushed the reset button,” said Niiya, who competed at the 2012 London Olympics and 2013 World Championships in Moscow. “So really, what I did at December’s national championships was only one of the things that happened in the past and it’s meaningless to live in the past. I think athletes need to keep moving forward, staying positive at any time.”

Taio Kanai, Akira Aizawa and Nozomi Tanaka were selected as outstanding athlete award winners.

Kanai clocked the all-time second-best Japan record of 13.27 seconds in the men’s 110-meter hurdles while also earning the national record of 7.61 seconds in the 60-meter hurdles at the national indoor championships.

Aizawa, a former Hakone ekiden star, set a new national record in the men’s 10,000 when he ran in 27:18.75 at the national championships in December and clinched an Olympic berth.

Tanaka saw her profile skyrocket in 2020 as she came up with a pair of national records in the women’s 800 and 1,500. The 21-year-old punched her Olympic ticket after triumphing in the 5,000 at the long-distance national championships.

Nozomi Tanaka poses during an online news conference on Thursday after receiving the best newcomer award from the Japan Association of Athletics Federations. | KAZ NAGATSUKA
Nozomi Tanaka poses during an online news conference on Thursday after receiving the best newcomer award from the Japan Association of Athletics Federations. | KAZ NAGATSUKA

Tanaka confessed that she felt unsettled during training as tournaments she was scheduled to compete in were called off due to the pandemic. But she believes that overcoming those roadblocks have made her a better athlete.

“It’s unclear whether the Olympics will really be held or not, and it wouldn’t be shocking even if the games are canceled,” the Hyogo Prefecture native said. “So I think for now I will have to focus on what I need to do to become more competitive.”

Women’s sprinter Mei Kodama and three others received the best newcomer awards. Kodama, a Fukuoka University student athlete, recorded Japan’s third-fastest mark of all time when she completed the 100 in 11.35 seconds in the 100 at the national collegiate meet in September. She also won gold at the nationals in October.

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