TBy Kazuhiko Hirano / Yomiuri Shimbun Sports WriterJapan is making a comeback in the men’s 4x400-meter relay ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
In May, the Japanese squad finished fourth in the men’s 4x400 at the World Relays Yokohama and qualified for the World Athletics Championships Doha slated for autumn.
Although the men’s 4x400 has played second fiddle to the men’s 4x100-meter relay in recent years, the 4x400 team has sought to overcome years of setbacks by constantly challenging itself to improve.
In the finals, first runner Julian Walsh chased a runner from the favored U.S. team and passed the baton to second runner Kentaro Sato in the close-fought race. The following runners also ran at a fast clip and doggedly kept pace with the lead runners.
“I thought we wouldn’t be able to keep up if I fell behind early on,” Sato said.
The Japanese 4x400 team was on the cusp of medal glory at the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics, but finished a mere 0.09 seconds behind the team that won bronze.
The team encountered further difficulties, as they could not keep pace with sprinters from other countries who ran quickly during the first half. Japan subsequently failed to qualify for the finals at three straight Games, starting with Beijing 2008.
Amid these struggles, retired Japanese sprinters who previously competed with the world’s best offered their help. Takahiko Yamamura, who ran at the 2000 Sydney Olymipics; Jun Osakada, who competed at Athens; and Ryuji Muraki, who participated in the 2001 World Championships, joined the team’s training camp last winter to help with training.
Yamamura was quoted as saying at the camp; “You’re weak. You can’t win if this situation continues.” He implemented a grueling training regime in which the runners ran 300 meters 30 times per day.
Focusing on aggressive running during the first half of races, the team won gold at the Asian Athletics Championships in April.
“We all had the same ambitions to compete on the world stage,” Sato said.
If the team ranks in the top eight at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, it will qualify for the Tokyo Games. Walsh said he wants to overcome the team’s years of stagnation.