Tuesday, March 6, 2012

One Olympic Ticket Left and No Clear Choice

by Brett Larner
photos by Dr. Helmut Winter


Heading into this marathon season the Japanese federation did not announce any specific criteria for the marathon teams for this summer's London Olympic Games, saying that they would not make any decision until the completion of the four-race selection cycle, the Daegu World Championships, Fukuoka International Marathon, Tokyo Marathon and Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon for men and the World Championships, Yokohama International Women's Marathon, Osaka International Women's Marathon and this Sunday's Nagoya Women's Marathon for the women.  The team lineups and alternates will be announced on Monday, Mar. 12 following Nagoya on Sunday, but for men all the contenders are in now that Lake Biwa is on the books.

Despite the lack of explicit criteria, two people are popularly considered to be on the three-man team for certain.  Arata Fujiwara (Tokyo T&F Assoc.) ran 2:07:48 for 2nd at the Tokyo Marathon and Ryo Yamamoto (Team Sagawa Express) 2:08:44 for 4th at Lake Biwa, each taking the top Japanese spot in his race.  With strong times, Fujiwara's mark making him all-time #7 on the Japanese lists, good placings and the top Japanese positions behind them it is unthinkable that either would be left off the team.  Interestingly enough, of the six possibilities for the team only Fujiwara and Yamamoto ran in only one of the four selection races.

Six possibilities.  Besides Fujiwara and Yamamoto, three men have a good chance of picking up the last remaining spot and a fourth is conceivable.  All have factors working for them and against them, and although one will get the consolation of being named alternate like Fujiwara was for the Beijing Olympics, the nature of the Japanese selection process, especially this time, is that an unequivocally clear and fair choice is not possible and that most of them will get screwed on some level.  The four contenders for the third Olympic team, their pros and cons:

Kazuhiro Maeda (Team Kyudenko)


Selection race results:
-Tokyo Marathon: 6th overall, 2nd Japanese, 2:08:38 PB
-Fukuoka International Marathon: 6th overall, 3rd Japanese, 2:11:46



Pros:
-Has the fastest qualification time of the four, 2:08:38.
-Beat Kawauchi in Tokyo.
-Was closer to winner in Tokyo than other three contenders in their selection race runs.
-Of his five marathons, only one has been slower than 2:12.

Cons:
-Had to run a second selection race to get into Olympic contention after losing to Kawauchi and Masato Imai (Team Toyota Kyushu) in Fukuoka.
-Was not the top Japanese finisher in either selection race run.
-His only truly bad marathon was a big one, 39th at the Berlin World Championships in 2:19:59, 4th of five on the Japanese team.

Kentaro Nakamoto (Team Yasukawa Denki)


Selection race results:
-Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon: 5th overall, 2nd Japanese, 2:08:53 PB
-Daegu World Championships: 10th overall, 2nd Japanese, 2:13:10



Pros:
-Only one of the four contenders to finish in the top two Japanese spots in both selection race runs.
-Ran his 2:08:53 in cold and rain vs. perfect conditions for Maeda and Kawauchi in Tokyo.
-Placed higher overall in Lake Biwa than Maeda in Tokyo or Horibata in Daegu World Championships.
-Beat Kawauchi in Daegu World Championships.
-Beat Horibata at Lake Biwa.
-Has PB'd every year since his marathon debut: 2:13:54 in 2008, 2:13:53 in 2009, 2:11:42 in 2010, 2:09:31 in 2011, and 2:08:53 in 2012.
-Has never finished outside the top 10 in a marathon.

Cons:
-Was not the top Japanese finisher in either selection race run.
-Lost to Horibata at Daegu World Championships.
-At both the 2011 and 2012 Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathons, lost to another Japanese runner by a few seconds.

Yuki Kawauchi (Saitama Pref.)


Selection race results:
-Tokyo Marathon: 14th overall, 9th Japanese, 2:12:51
-Fukuoka International Marathon: 3rd overall, 1st Japanese, 2:09:57
-Daegu World Championships: 18th overall, 3rd Japanese, 2:16:11


Pros:
-Top Japanese man and sub-2:10 in Fukuoka.
-Beat Maeda in Fukuoka.
-Placed higher overall in Fukuoka than other three contenders in their selection race runs.
-Showed tremendous racing ability in Fukuoka.
-Fastest PB of the four contenders, 2:08:37, within the London Olympics qualification period.
-Popular support.

Cons:
-Ran badly at Tokyo Marathon after already having chance of making team from Fukuoka and finished outside Japanese top two.
-Underperformed at Daegu World Championships and finished outside Japanese top two.
-Lost to Maeda in Tokyo after beating him in Fukuoka.
-Lost to Horibata and Nakamoto at Daegu World Championships.
-Only contender to have been beaten by all three other contenders within the selection races.

Hiroyuki Horibata (Team Asahi Kasei)


Selection race results:
-Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon: 11th overall, 7th Japanese, 2:10:05
-Daegu World Championships: 7th overall, 1st Japanese, 2:11:52



Pros:
-Made top eight at Daegu World Championships.
-Top Japanese man at Daegu World Championships.
-Beat Nakamoto and Kawauchi at Daegu World Championships.
-Lake Biwa result was still second-fastest of career, in cold and rainy conditions.
-Only contender from well-connected old-school team.

Cons:
-Underperformed at Lake Biwa and finished outside Japanese top two.
-Lost to Nakamoto at Lake Biwa.
-Of the four contenders, was farthest from winner in better of selection race performances.
-Placed lower overall than other three contenders in better of selection race performances.
-Only contender not to break 2:10 in either selection race run.
-Only contender not to have broken 2:09.

Looking at these four, there is no clear choice.  Maeda has the fastest time, Nakamoto is the most reliable, Kawauchi was the top Japanese man in one domestic selection race, and Horibata made the top-eight, an all-important distinction to the Japanese, in the last World Championships.  Each has a legitimate argument, there are precedents for almost any of the scenarios, and there would be no truly surprising choice among them.  It's a sign of strength that there are so many good choices, but also a sign of problems with the procedure that there is clearly room for politics in the decision-making.

Of the four, Nakamoto is the only one who is virtually spotless, the kind of solid, reliable backup you want to round out a good team.  He is JRN's pick for the best choice for the third Olympic spot.  But he is by no means a sure thing.  Intuition says Maeda will be picked on the basis of having the fastest time.  It could go either way, but it looks most likely that the two of them will earn the available Olympic berth and alternate spot.

Kawauchi is the most popular choice and has a valid claim based on Fukuoka, but having blown Tokyo it is hard to see him getting the nod.  And, given Tokyo, even harder to see him accepting it if nominated.  Despite this, although many would argue that it should not factor into the decision, Kawauchi has had a bigger impact on the public perception of Japanese marathoning than anyone since Naoko Takahashi, and there is no denying what having him on the London team would mean in that respect.  But then again, even Takahashi didn't make Athens.  Horibata is a long shot after falling apart at Lake Biwa, but his World Championships result will count for something; last time around Tsuyoshi Ogata (Team Chugoku Denryoku) was picked with a 2:17:42 for 5th at the Osaka World Championships over Arata Fujiwara's 2:08:40 for 2nd at the Tokyo Marathon selection race.  And never underestimate the importance of connections.

Take a minute to place your vote in the poll above for who is most likely to pick up that third ticket. Whichever athlete rounds out the team, Japan's London Olympics marathon squad looks set to be far stronger than would have been imaginable two or three years ago.

(c) 2012 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

photos (c) 2012 Dr. Helmut Winter
all rights reserved

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey Brett, thanks for the great summary.

As much as I like Kawauchi (who doesn't?), I'm actually hoping that Horibata sneaks in.

With the Kenyans and Ethiopians, getting 7th in the World Championships is a tougher accomplishment than people think.

I enjoyed the way that he attacked the race in Biwako. He was one of the few who stuck in the lead group (unlike Nakamoto and Yamamoto), and was actually still in the top spot till around the 35km mark.

I do agree that Maeda and Nakamoto have the best chance. And Kawauchi might very well get in. Can't wait to find out!