by Brett Larner
After finishing 4th in the 2004 Athens Olympics and 5th at the 2007 Osaka World Track and Field Championships, the Japanese men's 4 x 100 m relay team scored Japan's first Olympic medal in a track event since the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, running a season best 38.15 to take bronze behind gold medalist Jamaica's world record 37.10 and silver medalist Trinidad and Tobago's 38.06.
Of the four members of the team, only first-leg runner Naoki Tsukahara, the 2008 100 m national champion, had run well in individual competition in Beijing, making the semi-final of the men's 100 m. Tsukahara was again solid, delivering a strong start against Jamaica's Nesta Carta. A flawless handoff to 200 m national record holder and three-time Olympian Shingo Suetsugu on the second leg maintained Japan's position. Suetsugu performed another impeccable handoff to 2008 200 m national champion Shinji Takahira; while inevitably losing ground to Jamaica's Usain Bolt Takahira widened Japan's lead over Trinidad and Tobago.
The excellence of Japan's baton work was nowhere more clear than in Takahira's handoff to Japan's 36 year-old anchor Nobuharu Asahara. Compared with the simultaneous handoff of Trinidad and Tobago it was clear that Japan had accurately assessed its main competitive advantage to lie in perfecting its handoffs rather than in trying to rival the speed of Caribbean athletes.
While Jamaica's Asafa Powell sped away to a new world record, Asahara, competing in his fourth Olympics, tried to hang on to 2nd against two much younger, fast-closing runners, Trinidad and Tobago's Richard Thompson and Brazil's Jose Carlos Moreira. Thompson just managed to slip past, but Asahara successfully fended off Moreira to take the bronze medal.
In the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics Japan's Kinue Hitomi won silver in the women's 800 m. Although Japan has collected numerous medals in the marathon, no Japanese runner, male or female, has won an Olympic medal on the track in the 80 years since Hitomi's historic performance. The 4 x 100 relay bronze was thus Japan's first-ever men's track medal, an emotional achievement and, in all likelihood, a fitting end to the veteran Asahara's career. When an interviewer asked Asahara afterwards if this performance would give him more motivation in his future races Asahara laughed uproariously, the only answer necessary considering that Asahara had planned to retire after last year's World Championships. The other three athletes likewise gave overjoyed interviews after the race, even the usually coolly professional Suetsugu shedding tears.
Update: In interviews on Aug. 23, Naoki Tsukahara was touchingly earnest when he talked about how he and Asahara had stayed up in their room until sunrise this morning talking about their run. In the award ceremony Tsukahara held up his medal and stared at it for a long time as if he honestly couldn't believe it was real. Suetsugu admitted in the Aug. 23 press conference that he has been in a slump for a long time but said, "Maybe it wasn't a slump after all. I feel like I'm out of it now."
Update 2: The Japan Times' article on the relay team has some nice quotes here.
(c) 2008 Brett Larner
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