translated and edited by Brett Larner
Once the leading force in Japanese men's ekidens and marathons, the name of the Chugoku Denryoku team has faded into history. Of the team's three pillars of strength, 38-year-old Tsuyoshi Ogata has declined dramatically in ability, while 34-year-old Shigeru Aburuya will retire after next week's Hofu Yomiuri Marathon. It is a sign of the changing of the guards. "One era is over," says Chugoku Denryoku head coach Yasushi Sakaguchi. "Now it is time for us to start again from zero."
"Members of our team had a streak of making the national team in the marathon," says Sakaguchi, "and in the ekiden we were #1 in Japan twice." Chugoku Denryoku first ran the New Year Ekiden national championships in 1993. With an all-Japanese lineup the team won the New Year Ekiden in 2004 and 2007, and it has finished in the top eight seventeen out of the nineteen years since its first appearance. In the marathon as well Chugoku Denryoku was the preeminent team in the country, its members making seven-straight World Championships and Olympic marathon national teams. In the 2003 World Championships marathon, Ogata, Aburuya and Chugoku Denryoku's third leader, half-marathon national record holder Atsushi Sato, made up the core of the national team. Aburuya finished 5th in the Athens Olympics. A year later at the Helsinki World Championships Ogata won the bronze medal. "Having three of us make the national team has never been equalled," says Aburuya in looking back.
However, at the Dec. 4 London Olympics selection race at the Fukuoka International Marathon Ogata was 425th. The team's biggest hope for the next generation, fifth-year member Naoki Okamoto, was 14th. It's a low point in the team's history, and, admits Sakaguchi, "The times when things have gone well have gotten few and far between." For Chugoku Denryoku's 20th New Year Ekiden appearance next month as well, Sakaguchi's feeling of the team being in a crisis have grown serious.
At the center of the problem, the well-established system for developing runners that forms the cornerstone of the program has grown difficult to maintain. For years university runners' ambitions have grown, making the recruiting process more and more competitive. Athletes who have trouble adjusting to the change in training and get injured after joining the company team have also become more common, diminishing the quality of the intra-team competition from past times. The team's situation clearly shows just how hard it is to become good.
Sakaguchi's appointment as the federation's director of men's marathoning following the Beijing Olympics has also robbed him of time to work with Chugoku Denryoku's athletes, but he has not lost his drive to rebuild the team. "I want to start over from planting the seeds one more time," he says. Set to become an assistant coach at Chugoku Denryoku following his retirement, Aburuya has the same aspirations, saying, "I want to help cultivate our marathoners, and in the ekiden as well, with an all-Japanese team I want to see us become champions again."
Translator's note: Sato was a DNF at October's Chicago Marathon, his first serious race in a year and a half.