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Rikuren Long Distance Director Sawaki Derides Irifune and Fukuoka Men's Performances

http://hochi.yomiuri.co.jp/sports/etc/news/20081208-OHT1T00090.htm

translated and edited by Brett Larner

2005 Helsinki World Championships marathon team member Satoshi Irifune (32, Team Kanebo), ran a PB of 2:09:23 to finish 2nd overall and in the top Japanese position at the Dec. 7 Fukuoka International Marathon, becoming the first man to secure a position on the Japanese national team for the 2009 Berlin World Championships marathon. Despite this strong showing, Irifune finished 3 minutes and 13 seconds behind winner Tsegaye Kebede (21, Ethiopia) who set a course record of 2:06:10. Rikuren Long Distance and Road Racing Special Committee director Keisuke Sawaki (64) scorned the domestic results, calling them indicative of a crisis.

Is the difference between world class athletes and Japan's runners only going to get bigger? In Fukuoka the moment of crisis came at the 30 km point. As soon as the final pacemaker dropped, Kebede spurted out of the lead pack of four to leave Japanese runners Irifune, Tomoyuki Sato (Team Asahi Kasei) and Yuko Matsumiya (Team Konica Minolta) tumbling behind as he instantly created a huge gap.

2:06:10. The Beijing Olympics bronze medalist Kebede set the fastest-ever mark on Japanese soil; 3 minutes and 13 seconds later Irifune, a 27-minute 10000 m runner, came to the goal tape after having broken away from Sato at 36 km. Team Kanebo head coach and revered marathoner Kunimitsu Ito (53) commented, "I told Irifune just to concentrate on being the 1st Japanese this time, but he has the potential to run a time as fast as [marathon national record holder Toshinari] Takaoka's 2:06:16." However, Irifune himself said, "I couldn't match Kebede's change in speed. I'm happy that I met my target but at the same time I felt the difference in ability," showing more feelings of regret than joy at becoming a national representative for the first time since 2005.*

Rikuren Distance Director Sawaki could not hide his shock at the race's outcome. Witnessing firsthand the gap between the Ethiopian and the pack of top Japanese runners growing larger before his eyes, Sawaki raged, "These three guys couldn't even lift a finger in response." With regard to Arata Fujiwara (Team JR East Japan), who ran a sensational final quarter to move into 3rd place and take the 2nd Japanese position, Sawaki immediately scoffed, "The way he runs is a waste of energy. It looked like he was doing intervals. I expect that a large number of other athletes will run better than him in the remaining selection races." Fujiwara commented mildly, "I'm glad I was able to break 2:10 again. My coach and I are going to talk about everything and decide what to do about another selection race."

On Dec. 1 Rikuren launched its new Long Distance and Road Running Special Committee in response to the failure of both Japan's marathoner men and women alike to finish in the medals at the Beijing Olympics. "I want coaches to introduce more scientific analysis to their training programs and to make Japan's marathoners stronger," pontificated Sawaki from the helm of the new committee.** 3 minutes and 13 seconds is a distance of 1100 m. It will be a major issue for Japan's marathon world to bridge this gap.

*Translator's note: The IAAF's Ken Nakamura quoted Irifune after the race as acknowledging that his performance, his second marathon PB of 2008, was insufficient, saying, "I am happy to be the first Japanese in the race, which was my goal. But my time is not a world class time. I would like to improve it further."

**Translator's note: Newly-appointed Rikuren Long Distance and Road Racing Special Committee director Keisuke Sawaki was an ekiden and track star during his student days in high school and at Juntendo University, where he was a junior teammate of now-legendary marathon coach Yoshio Koide. Sawaki twice won the World Student Games 5000 m gold medal and was the first man to win the World Student Games 10000 m. He later set the Japanese national record at 5000 m and 10000 m and ran both events at the 1968 Mexico City and 1972 Munich Olympics, finishing 28th of 32 in the Mexico City 10000 m and failing to advance past the heats in the other three events. He likewise failed to achieve any noteworthy results in his attempts at the marathon.

After retiring Sawaki went on to coach Juntendo's ekiden team, leading them to four consecutive Hakone victories. Despite this great success at coaching runners to prepare for the ekiden, Sawaki never coached any major Japanese marathoners. After becoming Rikuren's Track and Field Director he maintained a position as executive director of Juntendo's ekiden team and last year was appointed to Rikuren's executive board. In November Rikuren created a new Long Distance and Road Racing Special Committee to deal with the perceived decline in Japanese marathoning in the wake of the Beijing Olympics, naming Sawaki to the new branch's top position.

A familiar face on Japanese race broadcasts, in interviews and commentary the 64 year old Sawaki gives the impression that his ego never regained its natural size after being referred to as 'The Prince' during his days as a high school star. Despite his frequent excoriation of Japan's best marathoners, particularly men, for failing to keep up with advances in world standards, Sawaki has yet to publicly examine possible causal issues such as the hothouse flower effect of the Japanese elite marathon circuit or the relationship between their obligation to run in ekidens and the ability of professional Japanese runners to focus on preparing for a target marathon, particularly as it relates to the current international generation of pure marathoners such as Kenya's Martin Lel and Samuel Wanjiru and Ethiopia's Tsegaye Kebede and Deriba Merga, with whom Japanese marathoners can no longer compete.

Sawaki is also a man of flexible opinions. While lambasting the top three Japanese men in Fukuoka for their failure to keep up with Kebede's 14:17 5 km split between 30 km and 35 km, possibly the fastest 5 km split ever run in a marathon, in defense of Rikuren's 2007 decision to allow elite and championship ekidens to restrict non-Japanese ekiden team members to the shortest stages Sawaki was quoted in the May 24, 2007 edition of the Asahi Newspaper as saying, "The differences in physical capabilities between Japanese and foreign runners are far beyond imagination."

As of Dec. 1, 2008, this is the man now in charge of Japanese distance running and its crown jewels, the marathoners. Sawaki's senior at Juntendo, Yoshio Koide, who unlike his junior teammate experienced extraordinary success in guiding Japan's top marathoners, told JRN's Mika Tokairin in an interview that when he wants to motivate his best women before an important marathon he tells them to focus on beating Sawaki's personal best.

Comments

Anonymous said…
On the one hand, Sawaki is correct. 3 minutes in a huge gap. On the other hand, Japan has already been the most successful "marathon country" outside of Kenya and Ethiopia, having had 3 guys run 2:06 or better.

There will be more Japanese running 2:06 or better, but they have to stop focusing on the domestic programme of races like the Hakone Ekiden and other races where are meaningless outside of Japan.
matt ward

but in the ageo half marathon nearly 25 japanese runners ran under 64 minutes, right?! this surely shows a depth in class and the law of averages would dictate that one or two of those runners will make the step up to world class marathon running...

i wish there were more than 5 UK athletes that could run under 64 minutes!!!
Anonymous said…
64 Minutes for a half marathon is inconsequential in the world these days. It might make you famous at your local gym or in your home county or state, but few outside the local area will care.

There hasn't been a Japanese guy running 2:06 for 6 years now. Atsushi Sato came closest with his 2:07:12 at Fukuoka last year. The fact that no Japanese finished in the top 10 at any of the distance events in the Beijing Olympics speaks volumes. Reiko Tosa's gritty Bronze medal in Osaka 2007 and Ogata's bronze at Helsinki were the last high points.
Roberto said…
Fujiwara commented mildly, "I'm glad I was able to break 2:10 again."

And this is the problem. Sato's (good) Fukuoka performance last year was a rare exception in recent years, as noted by Anonymous.

Japanese men seem to regularly clock in at just below 2:10, and Fujiwara's comment above indicates that perhaps they are content to run times that keep the corporate team money flowing ... and no more.

As Anonymous also notes, 1:04 won't get you anything, and if we look to shorter distances, on the track, it's difficult to imagine any Japanese man running close to the world leaders ever again without greater emphasis on basic 5K and 10K footspeed.

To run 2:06 you need to be running 1:01, and to run 1:01 you need to be running under 28:00. And so on ...

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