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Talented pool to vie for men’s relay spots

The Yomiuri Shimbun

By Kazuhiko Hirano / Yomiuri Shimbun Sports WriterTeam selections for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games are set to heat up, and the competition is shaping up to be fierce. Japan’s best athletes are vying to represent their country.

Among the country’s gold medal hopes in athletics is the men’s 4x100-meter relay team. At the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Ryota Yamagata, Shota Iizuka, Yoshihide Kiryu and Aska Cambridge used their polished baton passing to take the world by surprise, claiming the silver. However, in the 2½ years since that triumph, another wave of challengers with national team aspirations of their own has emerged. The battle for places on one of Japan’s top Olympic teams is intensifying.

Twenty-year-old Abdul Hakim Sani Brown is seen as a potential future mainstay. Sani Brown won the 2017 Japan Championships as an 18-year-old with a personal-best time of 10.05 seconds, the sixth-fastest time posted by a Japanese sprinter. Meanwhile, Shuhei Tada, 22, emerged as one of Japan’s top runners at the 2017 world championships. With Yamagata left off the national team, and Sani Brown missing the relay due to injury, Tada was given the leadoff spot under pressure-filled circumstances, and responded by helping the team win bronze.

At last year’s Asian Games, 23-year-old Yuki Koike brought home Japan’s first gold medal in the 200 in 12 years. Then, in February, 23-year-old Takuya Kawakami set a new Japanese record in the indoor 60 with a time of 6.54 seconds at a meet in Britain, establishing himself as one to watch as he looks to top his 100 personal best of 10.30 seconds. Kenji Fujimitsu, a veteran at 32 years of age, is also in fine form.

As a result of the Japan Association of Athletics Federations’ efforts to develop the skills of athletes throughout its ranks through training camps and other means, even the country’s young sprinters have acquired solid baton-passing technique, which has long been an area of strength for Japan. Between 23 and 27, all four men from the Rio team are in their prime, but none — not even Kiryu, the national record holder at 9.98 seconds, or Yamagata, tied for 2nd at an even 10 seconds — are assured of their places.

“I’m going to have sprints that make shockwaves, too,” vows Kiryu. Yamagata, for his part, is focused on what is to come. “There’s a feeling in the air that the level of men’s sprinting is going to get even higher,” he said.

For a time, Japan would frequently field largely the same squad, a practice that brought successes, including the country’s first medal in the event at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. However, with a larger group of sprinters now in the picture, serious internal rivalry is in the cards ahead of the Tokyo Games. “We have enough athletes to field two teams. It’s going to be difficult to decide who to leave out,” said JAAF Olympic Development Coach Hiroyasu Tsuchie, foreseeing a hard fight for places on the national team.

Rankings matter

Sixteen teams will compete in the men’s 4x100 relay at the Tokyo Olympics. With no spot reserved for the host country, Japan will have to punch its Olympic ticket on its own. The athletes’ road will be a trying one, as they work to qualify for individual events while also competing for their own places on the Olympic relay team.

Following International Association of Athletics Federations rules, a country can send a five-man team for the men’s 4x100 relay, with a maximum of three relay members allowed to participate in the individual 100. While the JAAF has yet to decide on a specific methodology for selecting the team for the Tokyo Olympics, the first priority for the athletes will be to earn a spot in the individual event.

The new world rankings system to be introduced this season by the IAAF may also have an impact on the individual event selection process. Unlike the previous system, in which the Japan Championships served almost as the sole qualifier, it would appear that rising to a certain position in the new world rankings will lead to a spot in both the individual 100 and on the relay team. As there are also athletes like Rio relay team member Iizuka who specialize in the 200, the JAAF is expected to scout all of the candidates for the right fit as it looks to fill the remaining spots on the team. The athletes will need to enter this season with their focus firmly on the battle for individual event spots.

Japan’s fight to book its place at the Olympics begins in May. The shortest route would be to place within the top 10 at the World Relays in Yokohama, and follow that with an eighth place finish or better at the World Championships in Doha this autumn. With Japan having finished eighth or higher 12 times in its 14 appearances at the Olympics and world championships since 2000, the challenge facing the team is certainly not that big.

Should the team fail to punch its ticket at the world championships, it will need to rank eighth or higher among all of the teams who have yet to qualify. These time standings will be determined by records posted at competitions held between Jan. 1, 2019 and June 29, 2020 that meet certain criteria for eligibility.

Second runner key

With talented runners emerging one after another on the Japanese sprint scene, the level of the 4x100 relay team is on the rise, but what more is needed of those who are looking to help achieve the dream of a gold medal win at the Tokyo Olympics? This question was put to Shingo Suetsugu, silver medalist in the men’s 4x100 relay at the Beijing Olympics.

Japan today has a deeper reserve of talented runners, and I get the sense that there is a wider range of options in terms of deciding on the running order. No matter who is chosen, there will be no weak links in the chain, and they can rest assured that they will be competitive no matter who runs or in what order.

At the Beijing Olympics, where the team of Naoki Tsukahara, Shinji Takahira, Nobuharu Asahara and I competed, it was a grouping of four people with strong personalities, and it felt like that produced a chemical reaction.

I was assigned to run second. The person who runs the second leg runs the longest distance, so each team has its best athlete in that spot. The second runner is considered the key member, so you are in the position of being indispensable to your team. While Japan today has the ability to be consistently competitive, they have yet to find a sprinter who can carry that heavy load.

One of the things with being on a team is that you build a sense of togetherness over the course of many practices. But when it comes to individual events, everyone in the team is your rival. In order for the relay team to get to a higher level, all of the athletes are going to be called upon to break away from the pack and produce results in the individual events.Speech

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