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Japanese Olympic Marathon Teams Announced

by Brett Larner

The big news in Japanese distance running today was the announcement of the Japanese women’s and men’s marathon teams for the Beijing Olympics. There were four contenders for each team, both including a tough decision. The results were, for better or worse, unsurprising.

On the women’s side, two of the three slots were taken by Reiko Tosa of Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo, who was guaranteed when she won a bronze medal at the Osaka World Championships last summer, and defending Olympic gold medalist Mizuki Noguchi of Team Sysmex, who had an incredible course record win at the Tokyo International Women’s marathon in November to effectively seal a position. The last slot was a toss-up between Tenmaya teammates Tomo Morimoto, top Japanese but 2nd overall in January’s Osaka International Women’s Marathon where she ran 2:25:34, and 21-year old Yurika Nakamura, who won her marathon debut yesterday at the Nagoya International Women’s Marathon in 2:25:51. While the experienced Morimoto’s time was faster, the selection committee at Rikuren placed higher emphasis on rookie Nakamura’s win. Her 1:11:08 2nd half, a 3 1/2 minute negative split, was surely also a factor. Morimoto is thus consigned to alternate status.

From this it seems that Rikuren’s criteria are good results in a world-level event or a win in one of the three selection races over a fast time. No men medaled in the World Championships or won a selection race, but the selection criteria for them were evidently not simply based upon time. Tsuyoshi Ogata of Team Chugoku Denryoku was chosen based on his 5th in the World Championships last summer, a fair performance but not especially impressive when you consider how easily he was dropped in the final kilometers by eventual 3rd and 4th place finishers Viktor Rothlin and Yared Asmeron. Atsushi Sato, also of Team Chugoku Denryoku, was all but guaranteed a slot thanks to his 2:07:13 3rd place finish at the Fukuoka International Marathon in December. Satoshi Osaki of Team NTT Nishi Nihon was named to the 3rd spot after his 2:08:36 3rd place finish in the Biwako Mainichi Marathon and his 6th in the World Championships. Left over in the alternate spot, unfortunately, is newcomer Arata Fujiwara who had a stellar run in the Tokyo Marathon where he finished 2nd in 2:08:40.

Osaki’s time was only 4 seconds faster than Fujiwara’s, but Fujiwara finished higher and, subjectively, ran a far more impressive race. The more controversial decision is Ogata’s selection over Fujiwara. Ogata’s result in the World Championships was good, but ultimately he was in contention for a medal and failed. Rikuren officials specifically said that Ogata was chosen over Fujiwara for the former's depth of experience and past achievement. Precedent supports this decision. Team Chugoku Denryoku's Shigeru Aburaya was 5th in the 2003 Paris World Championships and was picked for the Athens Olympic team over national record holder Toshinari Takaoka's 3rd place 2:07:59 qualifier; Aburaya duly went on to come in 5th in Athens, the top Japanese placing. Ogata is a reliable runner and says he will run well in Beijing, but 5th place is not a medal.

The media and officials frequently talk about how Japanese men aren’t as good as the women; while they took a risk and added a rookie to the women’s team, Rikuren missed a chance to cultivate a talented new man by choosing a veteran with a history of passable results and a weaker qualifier instead. This has to be a bit discouraging to the younger generations of runners. It would be wonderful to see New York or Chicago pick up Arata Fujiwara this fall and give him the chance he deserves.

(c) 2008 Brett Larner
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