Earlier this week I posted an evaluation of marathoner Yuki Kawauchi's 2013 season which included the observation that if Kawauchi, a self-coached runner who works full-time in a high school administration office, is capable by himself of producing a better record for the year than all Americans combined then it would suggest that there may be problems with the U.S. marathon system given strong American performances all the way up the half marathon. In their Week That Was roundup, American site Letsrun.com dismissed this as "harsh," and rather than addressing it, chose to publish an editorial titled "The Japanese Still Suck at the 1500 m" which included the statement:
How can it be that an entire country as advanced and developed as Japan, a country capable of producing seven sub 2:10 performers (including 4 sub 2:09) in 2013, can only produce a 1500 best time of 3:42.79 for the whole country? They should be ashamed.
Putting aside for a moment both the fact that this is a sidestep of the original issue and their tone, Letsrun discussed how eighty Americans are ranked above the best Japanese athlete this year at 1500 m and how this shows that there are probably genetic and physiological shortcomings in Japanese athletes, stating, "The Japanese runners also likely have more slow-twitch fibers which...makes them horrible at the 1500 m." Japan's world-class sprinting community would probably have a few words to say about that, but in their rush to claim race as the answer Letsrun ignores the very simple reason for the weakness of current Japanese middle distance running.
It doesn't exist.
There is virtually no serious middle distance running in Japan. Nobody cares about it. No history, no prestige, no infrastructure, no kids lining up to become milers. If you are fast enough, you become a sprinter. If you have stamina, you become a long distance runner so that in university you can achieve the twin dreams of running in Japan's most prestigious sports event, the Hakone Ekiden, where the focus is on distances around the half marathon, and of becoming one of the hallowed few, an Olympic marathoner. That's the way the system has worked for almost 100 years. Even if you wanted to be a middle distance specialist in most situations you are forced to focus on longer distances. With a very few exceptions at the corporate level the ones who become middle distance runners are the ones who aren't good enough to run longer distances, while the best middle distance times are often run by long distance athletes sharpening their speed.
For example, the two fastest current Japanese collegiate 1500 m runners, Ikuto Yufu (3:42.37, Komazawa Univ.) and Suguru Osako (3:42.68, Waseda Univ.), are long distance specialists with 10000 m and half marathon bests of 28:02.46/1:02:46 and 27:38.31/1:01:47 who ran those 1500 m times in off-season meets during summer mileage training. Their 1500 m times are not bad at all by NCAA standards judging from this year's class, and if Yufu and Osako were to focus specifically on middle distance with U.S.-style training it seems reasonable to think they could have the potential to be even faster. We'll have a chance to see what happens in that regard with Osako, at least, as he spends more time with the Nike Oregon Project post-graduation. Especially at the collegiate level there's an increasing awareness of the need to work on basic speed and so you see greater numbers of people running more 1500 m races these days, but at the present time middle distance as it is in the U.S. is still virtually non-existent in Japan. Overall, Japanese depth and quality at all longer distances from 5000 m up certainly suggests that if there were any reason for them to specifically focus on 1500 m the numbers Letsrun quotes would look quite different.
So, it's very easy to say that you have an 80 to 1 advantage when the other side doesn't play the same sport, but it's not much different from asking, "If the All-Blacks are so good then why is the NFL full of Americans and not Kiwis?" or "If cricket is so great then where are all the South Africans and Indians in MLB?" The answer to both of which is pretty simple to understand without resorting to speculation about physiological differences between races.
None of which really has much to do the original question of why the U.S. has trouble producing quality marathoners unless Letsrun's intent, which doesn't seem to be the case, is to suggest that the American focus on middle distance is related to its athletes' trouble transitioning to longer distance later. The false equivalency with Japanese middle distance the editorial staff at Letsrun.com has raised, Japanese marathoners are to American marathoners as American middle distance runners are to Japanese middle distance runners, suggests the corollary that no one runs the marathon in the U.S., that there is no history, prestige or infrastructure in American marathoning, which of course nobody could seriously claim is the case. The U.S. has a great history of marathoning, and major U.S. races like New York and Boston pay top dollar to have their best athletes there. The American system produces lots of marathoners, athletes with good times and accomplishments all the way up to the half marathon, so, as highlighted by Kawauchi's 2013 season, what exactly are the problems that are preventing it from producing equivalent quality at the marathon? It's only been a few years since Japan was down to near-U.S. levels in the marathon, but they've worked their way back up to make 2013 the second-best in their history. How can the U.S. do the same? Let's talk about that instead of dodging the question and speculating about how other races are inferior.
(c) 2013 Brett Larner
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