translated and edited by Brett Larner
S&B greats group photo (c) 2012 Tim Chamberlain, all rights reserved
S&B Foods announced Aug. 31 that its men's running team, long the home of Japan's best distance runners, will be disbanded at the end of the fiscal year next March. He himself the team's greatest success at the marathon, S&B Sports Department Chief Toshihiko Seko told reporters at a Tokyo-area press conference, "I apologize for this announcement happening so suddenly. The company's business circumstances are precarious, and despite a wide variety of measures that we have taken to try to find a solution we've arrived at a position where the only way out of our troubles is to disband the team. I think it was unavoidable, but it is sad all the same. In my time as an athlete I think I was able to pay back the company's investment in me a little, but since becoming coach and then division chief I feel that I have let the company down. Maybe the athlete's competitive record was also a part of the company's decision. I myself don't know. I hope now that our runners will carry on the spirit of Team S&B wherever they go next."
Head coach Hiroshi Tako agreed, saying, "'Competing with the world's best' has always been the lofty ideal at S&B, and I am deeply grateful to have had the opportunity to pursue that ideal together with the athletes, staff, and company workers at S&B for twenty years. Our athletes are still developing. They will continue to work toward the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics in a new environment, taking with them the S&B spirit of earning a place among the world's best."
Team S&B was founded in 1954 and under the leadership of head coach Kiyoshi Nakamura in the 1980's it became the gathering place of the best university runners in their post-collegiate careers, recording four straight New Year Ekiden national titles starting in 1984. S&B athletes made up a large part of the distance squads on the 1984 Los Angeles and 1988 Seoul Olympic teams, the Golden Era of the team's history. Seko ran the marathon in L.A., with teammates Yutaka Kanai finishing 7th in the 10000 m and Nanae Sasaki the top Japanese finisher in the women's marathon. S&B's Douglas Wakiihuri won the gold medal at the 1987 Rome World Championships marathon, following up a year later with silver in the Seoul Olympics marathon where Seko and Hisatoshi Shintaku also ran the marathon. Following Seoul, Seko become head coach of the S&B team. After leading 2:07 marathoner Tomoaki Kunichika to the 2004 Athens Olympics marathon, Seko was named S&B Foods Sports Division Chief in April, 2006, taking on a new role of support for the team.
S&B Golden Era greats (l-r) Tsukasa Endo, Takao Nakamura, Masanari Shintaku and Toshihiko Seko in Sendagaya, Tokyo, 6/28/12.
The current team roster includes a staff of six and six athletes, among them 2012 London Olympics 10000 m 5th placer Bitan Karoki and 2008 Beijing Olympics 5000 m and 10000 m runner Kensuke Takezawa. Although the S&B Foods company's financial circumstances were cited as the primary reason behind the team's disbanding, the lack of results in major races in recent years was surely also a major factor. Although Takezawa and Yuichiro Ueno, who ran in the 2009 Berlin World Championships, are still on the team, their failure to make the London Olympics team was the apparent deal-breaker.
Takezawa, the 2010 national 10000 m champion and collegiate 5000 m national record holder, commented, "I've been working hard under Chief Seko and Coach Tako, so it's very unfortunate. I want to get back on track as soon as I can, looking ahead and renewing my motivation in my training." Ueno, the 2009 national champion over 1500 m and 5000 m, added, "I'm very sad that the team of which I have been a part is disappearing. But until my next destination as an individual athlete is settled I want to keep running with my friends and training partners the way I have all along."
All twelve members of the team including Seko will now look for a new sponsor. "We plan to look for a sponsor who will take on all twelve members of the team as a prerequisite to any deal," said Seko. "We have some young, developing athletes, so it is key that we settle their future and give them peace of mind as soon as possible. Until the future of our athletes and staff is settled I will give no thought to myself." Due to the sudden nature of the announcement, no approaches have yet been made to any potential new sponsors, but if no company can be found that will accept all twelve members then the current team members will have no choice but to split up and go their separate ways. In that scenario it is quite possible that some athletes will have to retire.
According to a party connected with the company, if a new sponsor cannot be found and the current members split up, it is likely some will remain behind to continue working at S&B Foods. "It is the mission of both the company and myself to ensure that the athletes and staff find a new environment in which they can continue to train and compete together," said the source. "Not being afraid to get your feet wet is part of the S&B spirit. I want us all to face the future and whatever it brings with the full spirit of S&B."
Another of the Golden Era greats, Team Asahi Kasei head coach Takeshi Soh commented, "To think of the legendary red uniform disappearing for good makes me incredibly sad. It's inevitable that a company's fortunes will have their ups and downs as the times change, and if that is the reason this decision was made it leaves those of us who competed together with S&B for so long desolate and lonely."
Translator's note: The source articles make no mention of Kenyan S&B runners Wakiihuri or Karoki. I've amended the contents to include their places in S&B's history.
Team S&B has long been a puzzle, in recent years a virtual black hole where the top university talent, usually those with ties to Waseda University or teams coached by former Waseda/S&B elites, go and seemingly disappear. S&B has not run on the ekiden circuit in many years, its runners sometimes appearing individually on track races or in the odd marathon but rarely seeming to live up to potential. One head coach of a top corporate team told me, "I'm glad S&B doesn't run ekidens because with that lineup they'd destroy everybody."
The regular waste of its members' potential post-Nakamura represented an important lesson unlearned, but nevertheless S&B continues to symbolize something meaningful in the Japanese distance running world. Its loss will likewise symbolize the loss of something larger.
Nakamura, Seko, Wakiihuri...three of the giants of Japanese running history.