Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Evaluating the Japanese Performance in Berlin

by Brett Larner

By most criteria the Japanese federation's stated goals in the 2009 Berlin World Championships were modest and clear-cut: one medal, six top-eight finishes and a 25% season best performance rate among the team as a whole, with the medal and two of the top-eight performances coming from the team's strongest component, the marathon squads. Despite no-shows and disappointment from many of the biggest Japanese stars including hammer thrower Koji Murofushi, 400 m runner Yuzo Kanemaru and marathoners Yoko Shibui and Yukiko Akaba the team came just within achieving all of Rikuren's aims. Below is a quick evaluation of the Japanese performances relative to the stated goals.

Marathon
Goal: one medal, two top-eight finishes
Actual: one medal, two top-eight finishes
With three potential medalists in its initial lineup the women's marathon squad was by far the strongest on the Japanese team. Yoko Shibui's withdrawal with a stress fracture and Yukiko Akaba's surprisingly weak showing, the two biggest disappointments of this World Championships for the Japanese team, meant that Yoshimi Ozaki's silver medal in the women's marathon kept the team on track. Winning silver lifted the national team beyond the 2007 World Championships where Reiko Tosa's silver medal in the women's marathon was Japan's only hardware.

Yuri Kano offered Ozaki support in the lead pack and came through with a 7th place finish to round out the squad's quota after Atsushi Sato's 6th place finish in the men's marathon. Masaya Shimizu came unexpectedly close to exceeding the quota by rising to 8th in the men's marathon but was heartbreakingly passed by three rivals just meters before the finish line and ultimately ended up in 11th. Potential top-eight men Kazuhiro Maeda and Arata Fujiwara had extremely disappointing showings alongside Akaba and finished deep in the field.

The women's team silver medal was an improvement over its bronze at the 2007 World Championships. While the men's team bronze broke Japan's streak of four team golds it restored some confidence following the Beijing Olympics breakdown. Four marathoners, two each in the men's and women's races, also contributed season best marks to the overall tally. As expected, the marathoners were overall the Japanese team's biggest asset.

Overall
Goal: one medal, six top-eight finishes
Actual: two medals, five top-eight finishes
The clear assumption was that the women's marathon team would deliver a medal. The Beijing Olympics bronze medal-winning men's 4 x 100 m squad had a close call, finishing 4th, but Yukifumi Murakami's completely unexpected first-ever Japanese bronze medal in the men's javelin just a few hours after Ozaki's marathon silver was a cause for great joy. Combined with the five overall top-eight finishes it meant that in terms of competitiveness the 2009 national team exceeded Rikuren's plans and was a success.

Goal: 25% season best performance rate
Actual: 23% season best performance rate
The goal of a 25% season best rate, a partial measurement of Japanese athletes' ability to peak when it matters, revealed the area most in need of improvement. While the numbers look close, they are artificially buoyed by four of the marathoners' times counting as season bests despite not having run another marathon in 2009. Among the thirteen season best performances on the Japanese team were six PB marks. Encouragingly three of these were by relative unknowns including Murakami, hurdler Kazuaki Yoshida and decathlete Daisuke Ikeda. The other three PBs and one of the top eight finishes were all delivered by women's distance runner Yurika Nakamura. Nakamura deserves credit alongside Ozaki and Murakami as one of the heroes of the team for PBing and finishing 7th in the 10000 m, PBing the heats of the 5000 m, and then running a third PB in the 5000 m final. Without her achievements the team's numbers would look very different.

In terms of future improvement, the low expectations and even lower achievement rate for season best marks may indicate a timing problem with the late-June National Championships, with many of the top athletes making the team having recorded their season bests at or shortly before Nationals and then arriving at Worlds injured or flat. It may also betray a lack of experience and self-confidence among team members when faced with international competition after the relative closed-circuit nature of the Japanese track and field system. With some refinement on these points a larger percentage of Japanese athletes could be in a position to deliver their best when it is really needed and creep closer to the podium.

Medalists
Yoshimi Ozaki - silver, women's marathon
Yukifumi Murakami - bronze, men's javelin

Top-Eight Finishers
men's 4 x 100 m relay - 4th
Atsushi Sato - 6th, men's marathon
Masumi Fuchise - 7th, women's 20 km RW
Yuri Kano - 7th, women's marathon
Yurika Nakamura - 7th, women's 10000 m

Season Best Performances
men's 4 x 100 m relay - 38.30
Arata Fujiwara - 2:31:06, men's marathon
Kayoko Fukushi - 31:23.49, women's 10000 m
Minori Hayakari - 9:39.28, women's 3000 m SC heats
Daisuke Ikeda - 7788, men's decathlon - PB
Satoshi Irifune - 2:14:54, men's marathon
Yuri Kano - 2:26:57, women's marathon
Yuriko Kobayashi - 15:12.44, women's 5000 m final
Yuriko Kobayashi - 15:23.96, women's 5000 m heats
Yukifumi Murakami - 83.10, men's javelin throw qual. round
Yurika Nakamura - 31:14.39, women's 10000 m - PB
Yurika Nakamura - 15:13.01, women's 5000 m final - PB
Yurika Nakamura - 15:21.01, women's 5000 m heats - PB
Yoshimi Ozaki - 2:25:25, women's marathon
Kazuaki Yoshida - 49.45, men's 400 m H heats - PB

(c) 2009 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

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