by Brett Larner
Click here for a photo of four of the Tokyo Marathon's main contenders.
The 2nd of the three selection races for the Japanese men's marathon team at the Beijing Olympics takes place this Sunday, Feb. 17 at the 2008 Tokyo Marathon. With none of the three places on the team sealed for certain the situation is wide open, but a seasoned veteran looks poised to take one of the spots.
Japanese runners first had a chance to secure a slot on the Beijing team at last summer's World Championships in Osaka. Any Japanese runner who earned a medal in the marathon would be guaranteed a Beijing spot. Helsinki World Championships bronze medalist Tsuyoshi Ogata ran a brilliant race, running conservatively in the heat then attacking in the final kilometers to catch the pack of bronze medal contenders. Unfortunately for Ogata, Swiss runner Viktor Rothlin and Eritrean marathoner Yared Asmerom had something left and were able to kick away, consigning Ogata to 5th place. Nevertheless, it was a strong performance in hot conditions by an experienced veteran in a championship race, making it possible for Ogata to be selected on the strength of this race alone.
The 1st open selection race took place in December at the Fukuoka International Marathon. Atsushi Sato ran an outstanding PB of 2:07:13, running aggressively in the front and pushing the pace against Kenyan Samuel Wanjiru and Ethiopean Deriba Merga before fading slightly in the final few kilometers to finish 3rd overall. Because Sato did not win Fukuoka he was not automatically assigned a spot on the Beijing team, but his excellent time, the all-time 4th-fastest by a Japanese runner, makes it extremely likely that he will be chosen.
Fukuoka's 4th place overall and 2nd Japanese finisher Yuko Matsumiya also had a good turn with his 2:09:40, the only other sub-2:10 by a Japanese runner in 2007. In the unlikely event of weak Japanese showings in both the Tokyo Marathon and March's Biwako Mainichi Marathon, Matsumiya has a chance of being selected. More distantly, World Championships 6th place finisher Satoshi Osaki, who earned a bronze medal in hot conditions at the 2006 Asian Games, also has the potential to be selected based on his history of good results in hot championship events. Realistically, however, of these four athletes only Sato can rest on his performance with any assurance of being selected.
The Tokyo Marathon Domestic Field
By far the favorite among the Japanese runners is Toshinari Suwa (Team Nissin Shokuhin). Suwa ran 2:07:55 at the 2003 Fukuoka International Marathon to beat national record holder Toshinari Takaoka by 4 seconds and thereby make the Athens Olympics, where he was 6th. After a couple of mediocre years including a 7th place finish at the 2005 London Marathon, Suwa had a return to form with a 2:08:52 at the 2006 Fukuoka which qualified him for last summer's Osaka World Championships. In Osaka he finished 7th overall. Both his PB and best time within Tokyo's qualification window far outshine any of the other Japanese competitors, only one of whom has broken 2:11 within the qualification period. In fact, Suwa has the 3rd fastest PB in the field behind Kenyans Daniel Njenga and Abel Kirui as well as the 3rd fastest qualification time after Kirui and Osaka World Championships bronze medalist Viktor Rothlin of Switzerland.
It looks very solid for Suwa if he has even a decent race, but at the same time his history is working against him. Suwa has never been the top Japanese finisher in any of his major races. He was 2nd behind Tomoaki Kunichika in the 2003 Fukuoka, 2nd Japanese behind Shigeru Aburaya in Athens, 2nd Japanese behind Wataru Okutani in the 2006 Fukuoka, and 3rd Japanese behind Ogata and Osaki in Osaka last summer. Suwa has been training and racing well this winter and must be viewed as the overwhelming Japanese favorite, but he has always been vulnerable to unexpected domestic competition, most likely this time to come from one of the group of young runners moving up from fast half marathons to their first marathon in Tokyo. More on this group below.
The only domestic runner with any forseeable possibility of challenging Suwa is Satoshi Irifune (Team Kanebo). Irifune won the 2005 Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon in a PB of 2:09:58, qualifying for the Helsinki World Championships where he ran a somewhat nondescript race. He was 4th in the 2006 Tokyo International Marathon and 3rd in last year's inaugural Tokyo Marathon, but does not seem capable of going much below 2:10. It would likely take a very good day for Irifune along with a bad day for Suwa in order for Irifune to make the Beijing team.
Four other domestic runners have PBs in the 2:08 range, Koji Shimizu, Takayuki Nishida, Suwa's teammate Kenjiro Jitsui, and Kazutoshi Takatsuka, but all four ran their best races years ago and seem to be past their prime. While it is possible that some of the B-level runners such as Kurao Umeki, Kenichi Kita, or Kazushi Hara may have a breakthrough performance, it is equally possible and maybe more likely that a challenger will come up from the ranks of the debut marathoners.
Of these, the runners most to watch are Naotaka Takahashi, Arata Fujiwara, and Shingo Sato. Another teammate of Suwa, Sato in particular is feeling strong after taking motivation from his fellow Komazawa University alumnus, former Japanese marathon national record holder Atsushi Fujita. While not a first-time marathoner, Takashi Ota (Team Konica Minolta) had a breakthrough 1:30:48 run at the 2006 Ome Marathon 30 km and has been running very strongly this winter. He is a good candidate for a major breakthrough.
Suwa's teammate Kazuyoshi Tokumoto has long been a hope for the next generation of Japanese distance runners after his memorable years as a student runner, but in his debut marathon at last year's Tokyo Tokumoto ran a mediocre 2:15:55. After January's New Year Ekiden he reported severe physical problems which may prevent him from realizing his potential in the marathon. Nevertheless, he is entered again for this year's Tokyo and carries many hopes.
The Foreign Field
Last year's champion Daniel Njenga of Kenya, a longtime resident of Japan who runs for Team Yakult, is back to defend his title. Njenga has the fastest PB in the field, 2:06:16, but will face very tough competition from Suwa, fellow Kenyan Abel Kirui and Swiss Viktor Rothlin. Kirui will probably be the man to beat, coming to Tokyo with a 2nd place 2:06:51 at last fall's Berlin Marathon behind Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie's world record run, along with pacemaking Gebrselassie's 2:04:53 at the Dubai Marathon last month. Rothlin ran the Swiss national record of 2:08:20 at the Zurich Marathon last spring before going on to win a bronze medal at the World Championships. These three runners, along with Suwa, will most likely form the top group.
Tanzanian Samson Ramadhani is another contender. While the young Ramadhani has a PB of 2:08:01 and won last year's Biwako Mainichi Marathon with an incredible sprint finish against Kenya's William Kiplagat, he frequently fades in the latter stages of his marathons and thus remains somewhat unpredictable. Kenyan Julius Gitahi is another darkhorse. Gitahi is an Olympic track runner who has lived in Japan for many years and now runs for Team Nissin Shokuhin. He won his debut marathon at last summer's Hokkaido Marathon, running 2:17:26 in intense heat and humidity.
Three veterans round out the foreign field. Two-time Olympic marathon medalist Erick Wainaina of Kenya, 2005 Boston Marathon winner Hailu Negussie of Ethiopia, and two-time Olympic marathon 4th-place finisher Jon Brown will also be running. Brown is originally from the U.K. but has lived and trained in Canada for many years and now competes for Canada. If he has a good race he may be able to break the Canadian national record of 2:10:09, set by Jerome Drayton at the 1975 Fukuoka International Marathon.
A complete listing of the Tokyo Marathon elite field is available here.
The IAAF's Tokyo preview is here.
(c) 2008 Brett Larner
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