by Brett Larner
On many levels this year's World Championships men's marathon was a test for the Japanese marathon world. In the year since the system's breakdown at the Beijing Olympics, a year in which the world's top-level marathons have become fast-starting toughest man competitions regardless of conditions, the slow-moving bureaucracy at the top of the Japanese system and the athletes below have struggled with questions of their own competitiveness and even relevance and what, if anything, can be done to bring Japanese men back from the edge.
In this light the Japanese men's results in Berlin were a mixed grade - passing marks but maybe just so. After winning nothing but gold and silver in the World Cup team competition at the last six World Championships Japan earned only bronze this time, and that just by the barest of margins over Portugal. But it was still a medal against Ethiopia and arguably Kenya's strongest-ever World Championships teams. Top man Atsushi Sato was over five minutes behind winning Kenyan Abel Kirui and placed only 6th, missing his goal of the top five after struggling deeply in the third quarter of the race and apologizing afterwards to his training partners Tsuyoshi Ogata and Shigeru Aburaya for breaking their streak of top five finishes in the last four World Championships. But Sato's finish, throwing off his sunglasses before running down Ethiopian Dejene Yirdaw and 2009 Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon winner Adil Annani of Morocco in the aggressive ekiden style which has made him popular in Japan, and his roaring, screaming joy at the goal line showed that he has overcome the psychological damage of finishing last in Beijing and is ready to move on to something better. Maybe most significantly, all five Japanese runners went with the lead pack during the fast early stages despite the heat. They may have faded one by one, but the move at least showed a willingness to change and to try to take on the suicidal speed marathon era. While many internationl runners with better PBs did likewise only to DNF or finish deep in the depths of the also-rans, the Japanese men held on for the team bronze. And that's a sign which should be read as a hopeful one for the future.
Which is not to say that there wasn't a share of failure. Kazuhiro Maeda, running only his second marathon but showing glimpses of the potential to be a 2:07 runner or better, was the first to permanently fade from the Japanese ranks. He ultimately came in 39th of the 70 finishers, clocking a disappointing 2:19:59. The erratic Arata Fujiwara brought his dark side, running up front with Sato until well into the race before abruptly vanishing to stagger home in 2:31:06, 61st place. With five marathons now under his belt Fujiwara has run a PB of 2:08:40 and broken 2:10 another time, but he now has one race in the 2:20's and two in the 2:30's. To be fair his bad marathons have been for the most part hot and Fujiwara was nervous about the conditions just before the race, but the balance of scales on the question of whether he is an unstable talent or a hack who occasionally gets lucky seems to be tipping.
But on the overall scales this year tips toward positive. Veteran Satoshi Irifune hung with the lead pack as long as he could and then ground out a steady second half. Once again he failed to live up to his seeming potential, but he did what he had to and brought the team its medal. The biggest hero of the Japanese squad was undoubtedly little Masaya Shimizu, though. You probably had someone like him on your team if you ran in high school or university - the unremarkable, unasuming last man who reliably plods along at his own pace. Every now and then when the top guys fall apart that kind of runner comes through and saves the day. Aug. 22 was Shimizu's day. Surviving a fall at an early water station, burning energy to regain contact with the pack, then drifting away on his own, Shimizu adjusted pace to run the kind of race he always does: a steady, stable one in the low-mid teens. One by one he picked up Maeda, Fujiwara and then Irifune to move into 2nd on the Japanese team and, incredibly, 8th overall. In the very final meters of the race, completely spent in the heat, he was passed by a pack of three Europeans to finish 11th in 2:14:06, but his above-expectation performance was the key in Japan's bronze medal. Pausing to turn around and bow to show his respect to the course and race, he was immediately seized by race officials and taken to the medical area and was unavailable for post-race interviews.
And so even though the Japanese men's results were not exactly spectacular at either the individual or team level this year, they showed that there is still hope, that the people in charge and the athletes themselves recognize the need to change and are trying to find solutions to get their edge back. As the world standard itself continues to progress, the next three years will be a critical period in the history of Japanese men's marathoning.
(c) 2009 Brett Larner
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