by Brett Larner
Japanese men haven't won an Olympic marathon medal since 1992 when Koichi Morishita took silver in Barcelona. The landscape has changed dramatically since Beijing, and no doubt few outside Japan consider any of this year's strong team to be in contention to end the twenty-year drought. In Japan, it's another story.
2010's top Japanese man, ex-corporate league independent Arata Fujiwara (Miki House) returned from 15 months of setbacks to run 2:07:48 for 2nd at this year's Tokyo Marathon, in the process becoming the all-time 7-th best Japanese man over the marathon distance. Since then he has replaced civil servant runner Yuki Kawauchi (Saitama Pref.) as the focus of Japanese marathon hopes. Most consider him one of the country's best chances for an Olympic medal, and the best among the three men and three women in the event the Japanese love the most.
In 2010 after leaving the corporate league to go independent Fujiwara approached JRN about working together on his overseas racing. The first of those races, the 2010 Ottawa Marathon, saw Fujiwara win in a course record 2:09:34, the first Japanese men's overseas sub-2:10 win in 23 years. Including this race Fujiwara has five good marathons to his name, all with top three finishes and all sub-2:10 save a 2:12:34 for 2nd at the 2010 Tokyo Marathon in freezing rain and sleet. When he is on, he's on. Tokyo this year was the first time he looked mature and in control in a marathon, and with a solid group of sponsors now behind him he is in a good place mentally and training-wise, meeting all of his spring and summer tune-up racing goals and glowing with confidence. He believes he has a shot against the best from Ethiopia and Kenya and is shooting for a 2:07 regardless of where that places him. Only two men, Beijing gold and silver medalists Samuel Wanjiru (Kenya) and Jaouad Gharib (Morocco) have ever achieved that kind of time at the Olympics.
Unfortunately Fujiwara has a dark side. Excluding the 10 km of the Beijing pre-Olympic test marathon which he ran for practice as Olympic team alternate, Fujiwara's other five marathons have been atrocious, averaging an amateur-quality 2:30:33 for the four he finished and including a 2:31:06 for 61st at the 2009 Berlin World Championships and a DNF at the 2010 New York City Marathon. His wild instability means that no matter how good he looks at this stage he is in no way a safe bet. It would not be surprising to see him get into the medals, and neither would it be surprising to see him finish outside the top 25, or worse.....
At the other end of the spectrum is his former college roommate Kentaro Nakamoto (Team Yasukawa Denki). A year younger, Nakamoto made his marathon debut eleven months after Fujiwara with a 2:13:54 for 3rd at the 2008 Nobeoka Nishi Nihon Marathon. Since then he has run a PB every year without fail; after running 2:09:31 for 4th at last year's Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon to make the Daegu World Championships team Nakamoto said, "Now I understand what I have to do to run 2:08." Sure enough, at this year's Lake Biwa he ran 2:08:53 for 5th to make the London team. In eight marathons including Daegu he has never finished outside the top ten, whether in heat, ideal conditions or freezing rain.
Quiet and focused, he has mostly stayed out of the spotlight in the pre-Olympic buildup. In one of his few spring races post-Lake Biwa he notably broke 29 minutes for the first time with a 28:54.59 PB at a local time trial meet in May, following up a week later with a 5th-place finish at the BUPA London 10000 road race behind future London Olympics 10000 m gold medalist Mo Farah (U.K.) and Fujiwara among others.
While Fujiwara relocated his training base to California and Switzerland to prepare for London, Nakamoto chose to remain at home and train on his usual grounds in Oita, saying, "Every summer I train somewhere with a lot of hills, so if I train the way I do every year it'll be fine." He is also unambiguous about his goals: "To be the top Japanese man. Top eight is also a goal." While Fujiwara may be more talented, there is no question that Nakamoto actually understands what he is doing and is going about it in a systematic way, and he looks ready for his best race yet. He may have no realistic chance at a medal, but it will be genuinely surprising if Nakamoto does not make top ten again.
The third man on the London team, former Hakone Ekiden Fifth Stage specialist for Chuo University Ryo Yamamoto (Team Sagawa Express), is the least experienced of them, with only four marathons to his name. Like Fujiwara, his resume is evenly split. Two have been great, an inspiring come-from-behind 2nd place finish in his debut at the 2009 Hokkaido Marathon in 2:12:10, one of the fastest times ever run at Japan's hot summer marathon, and another come-from-behind gem to run Nakamoto down on the track at this year's Lake Biwa for 4th in 2:08:44. The other two, a 2:22:32 at the 2010 Tokyo Marathon and a 2:16:49 back at Hokkaido in 2011, were far less successful.
Since making London off his 2:08:44 Yamamoto has been well sub-par, his major performances being a 23rd-place 29:16.55 in June's National Track & Field Championships 10000 m and an 18th-place finish in 1:03:48 three weeks later at the hot Sapporo International Half Marathon. Although the progression there seems to be in a positive direction it is hard to read his current fitness level from his results. As such he will be the biggest question mark on the Japanese team heading into the final day of Olympic competition.
Detailed profiles follow below:
Club: Miki House
Born: Sept. 12, 1981 in Nagasaki
Graduated: Takushoku Univ., Isahaya H.S.
marathon: 2:07:48 - Tokyo, 2012
half-marathon: 1:01:34 - Marugame, 2012
10000 m: 28:41.05 - Fukagawa, 2009
5000 m: 13:41.35 - 2006
2:07:48 - 2012 Tokyo Marathon, 2nd
2:29:21 - 2011 Tokyo Marathon, 57th
DNF - 2010 New York City Marathon
2:09:34 - 2010 Ottawa Marathon, 1st - CR
2:12:34 - 2010 Tokyo Marathon, 2nd
2:31:06 - 2009 Berlin World Championships, 61st
2:09:47 - 2008 Fukuoka International Marathon, 3rd
2:23:10 - 2008 Chicago Marathon, 16th
2:08:40 - 2008 Tokyo Marathon, 2nd
2:38:37 - 2007 Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon, 85th
Corporate Team: Yasukawa Denki
Born: Dec. 7, 1982 in Yamaguchi
Graduated: Takushoku Univ., Nishiichi H.S.
Coach: Naoki Yamagashira
marathon: 2:08:53 - Lake Biwa, 2012
half-marathon: 1:02:29 - Marugame, 2009
10000 m: 28:54.59 - Sayagatani, 2012
5000 m: 14:04.31 - Nobeoka, 2011
2:08:53 - 2012 Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon, 5th
2:13:10 - 2011 Daegu World Championships, 10th
2:09:31 - 2011 Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon, 4th
2:12:38 - 2010 Amsterdam Marathon, 9th
2:11:42 - 2010 Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon, 8th
2:13:53 - 2009 Tokyo Marathon, 9th
2:15:21 - 2008 Hokkaido Marathon, 2nd
2:13:54 - 2008 Nobeoka Nishi Nihon Marathon, 3rd
Corporate Team: Sagawa Express
Born: May 18, 1984 in Hyogo
Graduated: Chuo Univ., Nagata H.S.
Coach: Tsuyoshi Nakano
marathon: 2:08:44 - Lake Biwa, 2012
half-marathon: 1:01:54 - Marugame, 2012
10000 m: 28:22.84 - Nittai Univ., 2011
5000 m: 13:54.96
2:08:44 - 2012 Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon, 4th
2:16:49 - 2011 Hokkaido Marathon, 5th
2:22:32 - 2010 Tokyo Marathon, 22nd
2:12:10 - 2009 Hokkaido Marathon, 2nd
(c) 2012 Brett Larner
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