Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Japanese Men`s Marathon Olympic Selection Race Preview

by Brett Larner

The Japanese men`s Olympic marathon team selection process continues this Sunday with the Fukuoka International Marathon. This article, the second in a series, will preview the Japanese Olympic selection process, the selection races, and the main contenders.

The Selection Process
In theory the top Japanese finisher in each of the selection races will be named to the Beijing Olympic team, with an overall win in one of the selection races guaranteeing a spot. In reality, Rikuren takes into account factors including finish time, conditions, and the presence of foreign competition in making their decisions on national team membership, often with surprising and controversial results. Unlike the women`s team, no Japanese man earned a slot on the team by medaling at the 2007 Osaka World Championships. This leaves three races to determine the three slots, the Fukuoka International Marathon, the Tokyo Marathon, and the Biwako Mainichi Marathon. As a result there is slightly less pressure on the men to produce very fast times in the remaining selection races than on the women who ran the Tokyo International Marathon; rather, the emphasis is on winning the races or at least being the top Japanese finisher. At the same time the male contenders are closer in ability than the women and so the potential results are less predictable.

Osaka World Championships Marathon – 8/25/07
The men`s selection process began in August with the 2007 IAAF World Championships Marathon. The top Japanese man in that race was guaranteed a spot on the Beijing team provided he finished in the medals. 2005 Helsinki World Championships bronze medalist Tsuyoshi Ogata put on a gutsy race from far behind to catch Viktor Rothlin (Switzerland) and Yared Asmerom (Eritrea) and put himself in position to defend his bronze medal. Unfortunately he was unable to match the other runners` final kicks and finished in fifth place with visible disappointment. While not guaranteed a spot on the Beijing team, Ogata`s high-placing finish in hot conditions, the aggressive quality of his race in Osaka, and his solid history in international championship events make him a likely choice for the team. He will nevertheless probably run either Tokyo or Biwako to earn a guaranteed spot.

Fukuoka International Marathon – 12/2/07
Fukuoka has a long history as one of the world`s great races. Traditionally all the big names in Japanese men`s marathoning run it as their fall-season marathon. This year is no exception, with four of Japan`s main Olympic contenders and several dark horses appearing in the lineup. An outright win in Fukuoka would guarantee a Japanese runner a spot on the Beijing team but will be made difficult by the presence of quality foreign competition. Competitors include:

Toshinari Takaoka: 2:06:16, Chicago `02, national record; 4th, 2005 Helsinki World Championships
Takaoka set the national record in a memorable performance in Chicago, leading most of the race at world-record pace before fading at the end and placing third to Khalid Khannouchi (USA) and Daniel Njenga (Kenya), just ahead of Paul Tergat (Kenya). He has not performed well in championship marathons, has been injured for most of 2007, and is nearing the end of his competitive career. This will be his last chance for the Olympics.

Atsushi Fujita: 2:06:51, Fukuoka `00, course record and former national record; winner, Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon `07
Fujita is the course record holder and only Japanese man to have run 2:06 within Japan. To Fujita`s credit, Haile Gebrselassie failed to break Fujita`s course record at last year`s Fukuoka. Fujita did not run well at Fukuoka last year and ran February`s Beppu-Oita Marathon in a last-ditch attempt to make the Osaka World Championships team. He was not selected despite winning Beppu-Oita.

Shigeru Aburaya: 2:07:52, Biwako `01; 5th, Athens Olympics
Aburaya was the top Japanese finisher in the Athens Olympics, landing just outside the medals. He ran this year`s inaugural Tokyo Marathon in an attempt to make the Osaka World Championships team but the freezing rain and wind in Tokyo were too much and he did not finish. He is reportedly in excellent shape and is one of the favorites.

Atsushi Sato: 2:08:36, Biwako `04; 1:00:25, World Road Running Championships `07, national and Asian 1/2 marathon record
Sato is the main hope for the future among current Japanese marathoners. He is widely respected for his aggressive running in shorter races and the legendary Toshihiko Seko has said he thinks Sato can run 2:05. Despite having twice run 2:08 Sato has not yet lived up to this potential. He comes to Fukuoka fresh from setting the Japanese national record and Asian 1/2 marathon record at this year`s World Road Running Championships in Udine, Italy.

Other possible Japanese contenders in Fukuoka include Yuko Matsumiya, twin brother of 30 km world record holder Takayuki Matsumiya, and twins Tadayuki Ojima and Muneyuki Ojima, both of whom have run 2:08 marathons.

Foreign competition in Fukuoka will be tough. The field includes:

Paul Tergat: 2:04:55, Berlin `03, former world record; 5th, London Marathon `07
Tergat is aging and may be past his peak, but his London Marathon performance this spring was his fastest since setting the world record and his fifth-fastest ever, demonstrating that he is still a contender.

Samuel Wanjiru: 58:33, Den Haag `07, 1/2 marathon world record
Wanjiru has broken the 1/2 marathon world record three times, twice this year. This will be his debut marathon. He says he will run conservatively and `only` shoot for a 2:06. A knee injury which resulted in a poor showing at October`s World Road Running Championships is a potential cause of worry, but last week`s stage-record 34:40 over a 12.5 km ekiden stage shows Wanjiru is back to form.

Rock `n` Roll Marathon winner Daniel Yego (Kenya) and past Boston Marathon winner Haile Negussie (Ethiopia) are also in the field and could stage an upset.

Tokyo Marathon – 2/17/08
The Tokyo Marathon began in 2007 and is Japan`s largest open marathon. It absorbed the Tokyo International Marathon, a long-standing elite race on the same date. The Tokyo Marathon course is easier than that of the former Tokyo International Marathon but has not yet seen fast times due to horrible conditions of wind and freezing rain at the first running. Daniel Njenga (Kenya) won the first edition of the race in 2:09:45 with Tomoyuki Sato the runner-up and top Japanese finisher in 2:11:22. Sato was chosen for the 2007 Osaka World Championships on the strength of this performance.

As of this writing, no elite competitors have been confirmed for next year`s Tokyo. Several of the main contenders who are not running in Fukuoka have stated that they will run either Tokyo or Biwako. It is likely that some names will be announced soon after Fukuoka. The Tokyo International Marathon usually featured smaller fields than either Fukuoka or Biwako and this trend is likely to continue in the newer version of the race.

Biwako Mainichi Marathon – 3/2/08
Biwako is the main spring marathon for most Japanese professional runners. The course is flat and many fast times have been run there, but the weather is sometimes warmer than runners can withstand after the winter season. The last of the Olympic selection races, it will feature some desperate racing as runners who avoided the battle royale in Fukuoka will face those who did not perform well in Fukuoka.

So far only one Japanese elite has confirmed he will run Biwako.

Toshinari Suwa: 2:07:55, Fukuoka `03; 6th, Athens Olympics; 7th, Osaka World Championships `07
The charismatic Suwa is one of the most popular marathoners in Japan. He has a solid history in international championships and had a memorable battle with Wataru Okutani at last year`s Fukuoka, running 2:08:52 to qualify for the Osaka World Championships.

Undeclared Runners
Many of Japan`s top marathoners, particularly those who ran in the Osaka World Championships in August, have not yet declared which marathon they will run. The depth of the Japanese male marathoner world makes it entirely possible that an unknown runner will move up and make the team, but several of the runners to watch in either Tokyo or Biwako include:

Tsuyoshi Ogata: 2:08:37; bronze medal, Helsinki World Championships `05; 5th, Osaka World Championships `07
As discussed above, Ogata has a good chance of being selected for the Beijing team based on his performance in Osaka and his solid international racing credentials but is unlikely to rest on these results.

Satoshi Osaki: 2:08:46, Tokyo `04; bronze medal, Asian Games `06; 6th place, Osaka World Championships `07
Like Kiyoko Shimahara in the women`s field, Osaki has run well in international championship races in hot weather and is a strong possibility for making the team if he runs well in either Tokyo or Biwako.

Wataru Okutani: 2:08:49, Fukuoka International Marathon `06; 14th, Helsinki World Championships
Okutani has improved dramatically in the last few years and had the fastest qualifying time of any member of Japan`s marathon team at the Osaka World Championships. Unfortunately he had severe abdominal problems during the summer and surgery prevented him from competing in Osaka. It remains to be seen if he will recover in time to be a factor in the Beijing Olympic team selection process.

Tomoyuki Sato: 2:09:45; 2nd place, Tokyo Marathon `07; 13th, Osaka World Championships `07
Sato is the quintessential Japanese professional marathoner, a steady, reliable runner who does not excel but rarely runs poorly. He has performed well in almost all his marathons during the last few years and could make the Beijing team if he runs as he did in Tokyo this year when he qualified for the Osaka team.

Satoshi Irifune: 2:09:58, Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon `05; 20th, Helsinki World Championships `05
A teammate of Toshinari Takaoka, Irifune is another solid journeyman marathoner. He made the Helsinki World Championships team with an impressive win in Beppu-Oita but struggled in the poor conditions at the Tokyo Marathon and did not make the team for the Osaka World Championships.

Kazuyoshi Tokumoto: 2:15:54, Tokyo `07
Tokumoto was a superstar university runner, setting many track records and famously DNFing on the second stage of the Hakone Ekiden, eliminating Hosei University from the race. He has long said he would become a marathoner but a series of injuries prevented him from debuting until this year`s Tokyo Marathon. Like many others he was bested by the freezing rain and wind and finished in a disappointing time. Nevertheless, he is still regarded as a major hope for the future of Japanese marathoning.

Scenarios

The men`s Beijing Olympic marathon team is still wide open. Ogata stands a good chance of making the team based on his Osaka World Championships performance but must run again to be assured a spot. Of the three remaining selection races, Fukuoka has historically produced the fastest times and is thus likely to be the crucial race. The top Japanese finisher will be selected for the team unless he runs a truly slow time. As with last year`s race, when both Okutani and Suwa were selected for Osaka after finishing as the top two Japanese in 4th and 5th, it is possible that more than one person will be selected. This will be important given the number of major contenders in the field at this year`s race. Tokyo and Biwako will likely be scrambles to pick up the remaining space or spaces but are unlikely to be as important as Fukuoka.

The next article in this series will look at the history of the Japanese Olympic marathon team selection process.


© 2007 Brett Larner
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