The Yomiuri ShimbunLess than two years remain before the opening of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, where Japan is aiming to take home 30 gold medals, and the Paralympic Games, which will start a month after the Olympics. This is the first installment of a Yomiuri Shimbun series about athletes’ preparations for both events.
As the cream of the Japanese athletics world gathered for the Japan National Championships in Yamaguchi in June, Suguru Osako opted to skip the meet and give up a chance for a third straight 10,000-meter title. Instead, he would run in the Hokuren Distance Challenge series meet in Shibetsu, Hokkaido, on July 14 as part of his preparations for the Chicago Marathon in October.
“It’s part of my training so my ‘mileage’ [the distance covered during training] doesn’t drop,” Osako said about his rare decision.
It was odd to see Osako running at his own pace, completely indifferent to the other runners who were seeking to record good times in the 5,000- and 10,000-meter races in the cooler climes of Hokkaido.
Osako is not alone, though — this season, many of Japan’s marathon runners are engaging in unprecedented activities. Up through last season, it was not unusual for an athlete to spend most of the year preparing for national qualifying races held in winter, aiming for the chance to appear at international meets.
But this year, more and more athletes are actively participating in marathons both in Japan and overseas.
The Asian Games in August have traditionally been eschewed by the top athletes, due to fears of heat exhaustion. This year the Games will see the appearance of Hiroto Inoue, who finished fourth in the Tokyo Marathon in February with a time of 2:06:54.
The motivation for this trend is the newly created Marathon Grand Championship (MGC) established by the Japan Association of Athletics Federations’ high performance committee as a new way of selecting national team athletes ahead of the 2020 Games.
The MGC is a race that will decide two of the three places for both males and females for the Games, and will take place on Sept. 15, 2019, on almost exactly the same course that will be used for the Tokyo Olympics.
Previously, athletes had been selected based on their results from the previous year’s major domestic marathons, but the MGC forms part of a new two-stage qualifying process, in which athletes will qualify for the MGC only if they meet the federation’s criteria for ranking and time in designated marathons taking place in 2017 and 2018.
The remaining spots, one each for men and women, will be determined based on the results from three other marathons.
Determined to strike gold in 2020, the JAAF launched its “marathon strengthening strategy project” after the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. In the process of introducing the MGC, they analyzed the race history of past Olympic and world championship runners.
Checking the number of marathons run by all Japanese medalists before the Olympic race, the assocation found that Koichi Morishita, who took the silver medal at Barcelona 1992, had the least, having only run in two races. Yet he won both of those races.
The analysis also revealed that the athletes who tended to lose Olympic races were “one-hit runners,” who had performed well only in national qualifying marathons.
In the new two-stage qualifying process, athletes will need to achieve good results in at least two competitions and demonstrate steady, reliable performances. Project leader Toshihiko Seko said: “Marathons require sufficient preparation. You can’t just turn up and expect to win.”
Thirteen men and six women who have qualified for the MGC, including Osako, are now training hard to improve their performance amid hot temperatures and their competitiveness in races without pacesetters to get ready for the MGC and the Tokyo Olympics.
Organizations for other sports are also planning to introduce new procedures for qualifying athletes for the national team, as part of efforts to achieve the best possible results at the Tokyo Olympics.
The All Japan Judo Federation revised its regulations in March 2017, implementing a system whereby judoka are given a provisional offer to represent Japan in the 2018 and 2019 world championships if they win both the world championship and the Tokyo Grand Slam (held in Osaka this year) the previous year.
In the past, the Japanese representatives in various weight categories were determined around April, after taking into account the results of the Tokyo GS, European international tournaments and All Japan Judo Championships. But the recent change to the regulations means that the provisional offers to judoka could be announced as early as November or December of the preceding year, giving them longer to train and recover from any injuries.
As a result, Naohisa Takato in the 60-kilogram division and Hifumi Abe in the 66-kilogram division have met the criteria for consecutive victories and therefore secured their place at the 2018 world championship. Whether the new regulations will apply for the 2020 Olympics remains to be seen. The federation says it will consider the matter in light of the results of the 2018 and 2019 world championships.
Perhaps the most drastic change to qualifying can be found in artistic swimming (formerly synchronized swimming). To compete with world powerhouses, whose athletes have grown taller, a new policy was announced last September, advocating “forming a large, dynamic team.” Five new members were added to the team to raise the average height. At the Japan Open in April, six of the eight members in the team exceeded 1.65 meters in height.
Masayo Imura, head coach of the Japanese artistic swimming team, said: “The Ukrainian team has many members over 1.80 meters. I’d love to take all the members of the national volleyball team and train them to be swimmers.”
In rugby union, powerhouse nations have been increasing the number of pro teams in the sevens version of the game, which is included in the Olympics. In response to this trend, the Japan Rugby Football Union plans to increase the number of players specializing in sevens.
The JRFU is working hard to sign exclusive contracts with players belonging to teams at the top of the league, aiming to secure a dozen new players.
In March this year, the Japan Table Tennis Association announced that it would decide who will represent Japan at the Olympics in January 2020, with the two top-ranking players at that time being chosen to appear in Olympic singles matches. Under this system, players will not qualify unless they improve their ranking, which encourages competition.
Immediately following the announcement, then 17-year-old Miu Hirano rushed to complete her training at the Elite Academy a year early and turn pro so that she could concentrate on competitions for qualifying.
Young track runners who represented Japan in events at recent Olympics and world championships are also turning to marathons one after another, in the hopes of securing the right to run in the MGC. These runners are producing swift times, such as Yuta Shitara, who broke the national record in the men’s marathon that had stood for 16 years, and Mizuki Matsuda, whose debut marathon put her third on the all-time Japan women’s list.