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Beating History – The Japanese Team at the London World Championships

The Japanese team at the London World Championships has few real medal prospects. Its best chances come in the men’s 4x100 m, where the roster includes ever newer and faster blood than last year’s Olympic silver medal-winning team in 18-year-old Abdul Hakim Sani Brown (Tokyo T&F Assoc.) and 21-year-old Shuhei Tada (Kwansei Gakuin Univ.), and the men’s race walks, where the 20 km features Eiki Takahashi (Fujitsu), #2 in the world this season, and Hirooki Arai (SDF Academy), the 50 km Rio bronze medalist.

If there is another solid medal prospect it comes in the women’s marathon, where Japanese athletes have won eleven medals in fifteen World Championships to date. Yuka Ando (Suzuki Hamamatsu AC) ran the fastest-ever debut by a Japanese woman with a 2:21:36 at March’s Nagoya Women’s Marathon, putting her at 5th on the London entry list. There have been calls for her to be cautious in coming back with another hard marathon so soon after her first, but a run anything like what she did in March should put her in reach of at least bronze. Her mid-2:23 teammates Mao Kiyota (Suzuki Hamamatsu AC) and Risa Shigetomo (Tenmaya) should play important supporting roles and factor into a slower race.

The Japanese men have the best team outside of Ethiopia and Kenya with 2:08 men Yuki Kawauchi (Saitama Pref. Gov’t), Hiroto Inoue (MHPS) and Kentaro Nakamoto (Yasukawa Denki), but they face a tougher battle to break into the medals with three minutes separating them from #3-ranked Daniel Wanjiru (Kenya). Kawauchi is on his game this season and dead focused but has been only mediocre in his other World Championships races. Inoue shows a lot of promise with a 2:08:22 best of a sub-63 first half in just his second marathon in Tokyo this spring and could be the favorite for the top Japanese spot. Nakamoto is the best Championships marathoner of his generation, with a 6th-place finish in the London Olympics, a 5th in Moscow a year later, and two of the ten fastest times ever by a Japanese man at Worlds. Equally true for all three, a top ten finish would be good, top eight very good, top five excellent, and, if everything went perfectly, maybe better.

No Japanese men qualified for the 10000 m this year, a first in World Championships history, and with none in the 5000 m either it’s a pretty sorry state just three years out from a home soil Olympics. Mitigating that slightly is Hironori Tsuetaki (Fujitsu) in the 3000 m steeplechase. Only one Japanese man has ever made a World Championships steeple final, once, and fresh off an 8:29.05 PB there’s not much hope of Tsuetaki adding to that. But any further improvement to that and he’ll be on for one of the fastest Japanese steeple times ever at Worlds.

While the men are staying home, Japanese women will be at work in both the 5000 m and 10000 m. Two years ago in Beijing Ayuko Suzuki (Japan Post) ran one of the best-ever 5000 m at Worlds by a Japanese woman, 15:08.29 for 9th. She’s still working back from an injury and hasn’t hit peak form, beaten by junior teammate Rina Nabeshima (Japan Post) at Nationals, but things look to be headed in the right direction. The JAAF surprisingly didn’t name a third woman to the team despite multiple solid candidates, leaving it up to Suzuki and the very promising Nabeshima.

One of the best Japanese performances in recent memory was Hitomi Niiya’s brilliant and career-ending 5th place in the Moscow World Championships 10000 m. The days where Japanese women could medal in the 10000 m are 20 years distant, but again Suzuki looks like a contender to carry her generation. Beating her at Nationals, Mizuki Matsuda (Daihatsu) is young, strong and still on the upward curve, and Miyuki Uehara (Daiichi Seimei) joins them to form a very solid team, moving up in distance after becoming just the second Japanese woman to make an Olympic 5000 m final with her fearless frontrunning in Rio last year.

© 2017 Brett Larner, all rights reserved


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