The Yomiuri ShimbunWith the race to qualify for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics entering the final stretch, anticipation is building over a showdown of sprinters at the upcoming Japan Championships.
The questions on the minds of athletics fans are: Who will make the Japan team in the men’s 100 meters, and will any of the sprinters become the nation’s first to break the 10-second barrier?
A number of bright prospects have emerged in recent years, with the spotlight falling mainly on two sprinters — Yoshihide Kiryu, a Toyo University student who clocked 10.01 as a high schooler in 2013, and Ryota Yamagata, the 2012 Olympian who has beaten Kiryu twice this year.
The two faced off on Sunday in Tottori at the Fuse Sprint meet, where participants ran two races in the 100 as a time trial. The 20-year-old Kiryu won the first race with a mediocre time of 10.21, which was .02 faster than Yamagata.
The highlight of the day came in the second race. Kiryu took the early lead, but Yamagata, who came out low out of the blocks and accelerated smoothly, cut the gap at the midpoint, then overtook him in the last 10 meters to win in 10.06, .03 ahead of his rival.
The time was significant for the 23-year-old Yamagata, as it eclipsed the personal best he set at the 2012 London Olympics by .01.
“These four years were really long,” said Yamagata, who had struggled to recover from lower-back pain he suffered last year.
The 10.09 was a season best for Kiryu, but the young star was clearly disappointed. “The time doesn’t matter if you lose,” he said.
Kiryu showed improvement in his start, which has been a weak area for the well-known runner. “I began my movements from the hands, and my hips didn’t shift that much, which was good,” Kiryu said.
But the strong start was not enough as Yamagata eventually caught up to and charged past him. Kiryu pledged to make improvements from the midpoint of the race ahead of the Japan Championships, the domestic qualifier for the Rio Olympics that starts on June 24 in Nagoya.
Yamagata first grabbed the spotlight when he clocked 10.07 at the London Olympics while still a student at Keio University, a result that started talk of him becoming the one to finally break 10 seconds.
However, Kiryu suddenly emerged and overshadowed Yamagata. At 17, Kiryu clocked 10.01 in April 2013, putting him second on the all-time Japan list. Koji Ito’s Japan record of 10.00 has stood since 1998.
Yamagata won the national title in 2013, but was dethroned the next year by Kiryu. In March 2015, Kiryu again made headlines by clocking a wind-aided 9.87 at a meet in Texas.
Meanwhile, 2015 was a tough year for Yamagata. Struggling to recover from back problems, he was only able to run 10.60 at the Japan Championships in June, and missed a spot at the world championships.
He worked hard to regain his form. Over the winter, he put his focus on building up strength through weight training, and put on 4 kilograms of muscle in the process. Yamagata also worked on developing a more relaxed, efficient running form.
The efforts paid off. After winning the Oda Memorial Meet in April, he went on to win the East Japan corporate title in May, clocking 10.08 in the semifinal and 10.12 in the final.
Yamagata is now ready for the big showdown at the Japan Championships. “I have the feeling that a sub-10 time has become more realistic,” he said after Sunday’s race.
Kiryu pledged to strike back. “A precondition to compete at the Olympics is to win the Japan Championships.”
Competition waits in wings
Yamagata and Kiryu are not the only sprinters seeking tickets to Rio, as well as taking aim at the 10-second barrier.
Aska Cambridge, who graduated from Nihon University this spring, clocked 10.10 at the East Japan corporate championships in May, putting him ninth on Japan’s all-time list.
“As I have reached this level, I want to put up a sub-10 time,” said Cambridge, who has a Jamaican father and Japanese mother.
There is another factor that fuels Cambridge’s ambition. The 22-year-old belongs to Dome Corp., a company that is licensed to sell the products of U.S. sports apparel maker Under Armour. The Japanese company recently announced it will pay Cambridge a ¥100 million bonus if he becomes the first Japanese to go under 10 seconds.
“My motivation is 100 times more than it was,” Cambridge said.
Another sprinter expected to be in the mix is 17-year-old Abdul Hakim Sani Brown, a third-year student at Josai High School in Tokyo. The teenager grabbed the spotlight last July by winning both the 100 and 200 meters at the IAAF world youth championships.