by Brett Larner
Despite Japan's outstanding record of three gold, four silver and five bronze medals in the marathon over the last nine World Championships, there is no escaping the harsh reality that Masako Chiba's bronze in the women's 10000 at the 1997 Athens World Championships is its only track distance event hardware. There may be little chance of any of the eight runners Japan will send to the 5000 m, 10000 m and 3000 mSC at this year's Berlin World Championships finishing in the medals or even making the finals, but the team nevertheless features several compelling young athletes worth keeping an eye on. Below is a quick guide to the members of the Japanese distance squad listed by event. All times and dates listed are local Berlin time.
Women's 3000 mSC - Heats: 10:50 a.m., 8/15 - Final: 8:30 p.m., 8/17
Nearly 37, Minori Hayakari is the oldest runner in the field by a wide margin but has continued to improve over the last few years, a memorable fall at the 2007 Osaka World Championships notwithstanding. Her most recent national record in the steeplechase, 9:33.93, came last summer in the leadup to Beijing and puts her in the middle of the field quality-wise but still well out of contention. This year she has struggled to reach top form, clocking a season best of only 9:45.05. A season best would be a worthy target and a new national record likely the best she could hope for.
Women's 10000 m - Final: 7:25 p.m., 8/15
The women's 10000 m has leapt ahead into sub-30 minute territory in the last year, lowering the chances of another runner like Masako Chiba or Americans Kara Goucher and Shalane Flanagan making their way into the bronze. 2009 national champion Yukiko Akaba is running the marathon in Berlin, but surprise runner-up Yukari Sahaku will line up in the 10000 m. The only runner in the field with a PB over 32 minutes, anything but a last-place finish will be a success for the tiny Sahaku. Middle woman Yurika Nakamura has run poorly in the 10000 m all season, particularly at the National Championships in June. Already holding a valid World Championships A-standard mark from last season, Nakamura was added to the 10000 m after she earned a spot in the 5000 m by winning that distance at the National Championships. All-time Japanese #2 Kayoko Fukushi has been injured since last fall and has yet to perform anywhere near her peak ability this season, but in a similar situation last year she pulled out a season-best 31:01.14 at the Beijing Olympics. It looks unlikely to happen again but she may surprise.
Men's 3000 mSC - Heats: 11:00 a.m., 8/16 - Final: 7:50 p.m., 8/18
Like Hayakari, men's steeplechase national record holder Yoshitaka Iwamizu is on top partly through the default of having no serious domestic competition. His record of 8:18.93 is more than respectable, but with a season best of only 8:34.95 he will be hard-pressed to make the final. Team Honda's Ethiopian ace Yacob Jarso has a better chance of finishing up front. Jarso finished 4th in the steeplechase at the Beijing Olympics, setting a then-national record of 8:13.47. Late this season he lost the record to Roba Gary, who clocked 8:12.03 to take the top spot on the Ethiopian steeple squad. Jarso is determined to pick up a medal this time, but with nine athletes holding times under 8:10 he faces a tough race.
Men's 10000 m - 8:50 p.m., Aug. 17
Yuki Iwai kicked off 2009 by running 45:35 on the 16.7 km anchor stage of the Asahi Ekiden, a pace faster than the road 15 km world record at the time. In early June he ran a 10000 m PB of 27:58.03 to pick up the World Championships B-standard, then two weeks later he took the 10000 m national title to earn his place in Berlin. If he ran the way he did in Asahi, and you should watch the video clip of him in that race linked above, something magical might happen in Berlin, but unfortunately this is the real world. Another Yuki, the younger Yuki Sato, ran an A-standard 27:38.25 in late April, the third-fastest ever by a Japanese runner, but incredibly was left off the national team in favor of an empty seat after only a mediocre performance at Nationals. It's hard to reconcile this move with Rikuren's current mission to 'strengthen Japanese men's distance running.'
Women's 5000 m - Heats: 10:45 a.m., 8/19 - Final: 7:35 p.m., 8/22
It's no secret that 2009 national champion Yurika Nakamura got lucky in picking up her title, national record holder Kayoko Fukushi and 1500 m national record holder and defending 5000 m national champion Yuriko Kobayashi, both Beijing Olympians over 5000 m, coming off injuries and far from peak shape. Nakamura just held the pair off in the last straight and, holding a B-standard time, got a ticket to Berlin along with her title. It's also no secret that apart from three unqualified athletes from small countries taking part through the IAAF's development program, Nakamura has the slowest 5000 m PB in the entire field. It would take something truly special to see her in the final. Kobayashi has a more realistic chance of making the final, but much depends on the extent to which she has continued her recovery from the injuries which kept her out of the spring season. Although Fukushi beat Kobayashi at Nationals, she lacks a valid A-standard mark and did not make the 5000 m squad.
Men's 5000 m - Heats: 6:55, 8/20 - Final: 4:25 p.m., 8/23
Double 1500 m and 5000 m national champion Yuichiro Ueno's run in the 5000 m may well be the most interesting Japanese track performance in this World Championships. Ueno has had his share of ups and mostly self-inflicted downs over the last few years, but his performances at Nationals this year, an uncharacteristically crafty 5000 m win followed by a brash, frontrunning PB victory in the 1500 m to keep national record holder Fumikazu Kobayashi off the Berlin team, were inspiring and entertaining. With a PB of only 13:21.49 he's a long shot even for the final, but it's hard to see him not trying. In a perfect world the kind of guts and aggression which make people shake their heads at his name domestically will lead Ueno on to do something great in the semi when he races the world's best.
(c) 2009 Brett Larner
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