Thursday, March 6, 2014

With Regard to the Kanto Region University Student United Team

translated and edited by Brett Larner

Note: These blog posts were written by an athlete who ran on the Hakone Ekiden's Kanto Region University Select Team twice before going on to become one of Japan's most prominent distance runners and all-time great marathoners.  He semi-anonymously runs a blog called "The Former Hakone Ekiden Kanto Region University Select Team Member Blog" dedicated to preserving the Select Team from elimination by the powers that be. These posts are in response to the KGRR's decision to reintroduce the Select Team to Hakone in 2015 under a different name without counting its results.

According to the news on the net, the "Kanto Regional University Select Team" is going to be resurrected next year with its name changed to "Kanto Region University Student United Team."  In February at a party in Tokyo for people connected with the Hakone Ekiden some executives from the KGRR were saying, "The Select Team, you know, it's just a collection of fast runners from universities across Kanto, so the name should change," but I didn't think they were really going to change it.  Up to now it has always been called "Select," but now we're going to have to call it a "Union?"

According to the KGRR's proposal the Select Team is going to end up being called "Kanto United," but it's not just the name.  Lots of other changes are being made as well.
  • Participation only without team or individual results counting
  • One school, one runner
  • Only runners who have run Hakone two or less times are elligible
I think the point about the team becoming participation-only is the biggest change.  Since the 83rd Hakone Ekiden, when voices shouting, "Let's stop treating this like it's some kind of festival!" got the Select Team's results counted for the first time, the Select Team has been a motivation to the big powerhouse schools, who've been saying, "If they get into the top ten then they're going to knock one of us back to the qualifiers."  Now that extra motivation is gone.  The big boys are going to care less and less about racing the Select, uh, United Team.

The other two points look they're going to be plusses for athletes from weak small and mid-sized schools like my alma mater, but they mean that senior aces from major schools, like Hosei University's Hidehito Takamine at the 85th Hakone and Tokai University's Tsubasa Hayakawa at the 89th running, have a significantly lower chance of being picked for the team.  It may be true that this new system might help make it easier for athletes from small, weak schools get picked for the team, but I feel that this system is going to lower the motivation of mid-level and upper-echelon schools.

Additionally, thanks to flaws in the system athletes like Shoin University's Aritaka Kajiwara who ran on the Select Team all four years are being eliminated by the rule about not being picked more than twice.  As a result of his experience on the Select Team Kajiwara has had tremendous success as a speed runner, one of the top finishers on the track at last year's National Championships, and I'm very sorry to see the opportunity for athletes like him to develop again being taken away.  At the Hakone Ekiden party last month the KGRR bigwigs said, "We intend to put a much better system in place for the Select Team."  I can see now that when they said "a much better system" they meant "a system that will prevent athletes like Kajiwara from coming along."

I myself carry with me the memory of the joy of my teammates and I lifting our anchor runner onto our shoulders together in Otemachi when we got into the seeded top ten, and to see the team being returned to participation-only status, to know that scenes of joy like that are not going to be replayed, I think it is incredibly sad that these kinds of organizational changes have been made.

What direction is the United-Team-formerly-known-as-Kanto-Region-Select-Team going to take?  Last year when the vote took place on whether to keep the Kanto Region Select Team (every year) or abolish it (only have it once every five years), they listened to input from powerhouse schools, mid-level schools, and small, weak programs, and the decision was made to keep it.  But with the changes made this year, what happens a few years down the road when the Third Great Abolition Crisis happens?  I worry about what the future holds for the team.

I've written a variety of things here, but except for item three,
  • Only runners who have run Hakone two or less times are eligible
I feel like this is just an attempt to try to return to the time (and conventions) before the 83rd Hakone Ekiden. It seems like the number one priority of the KGRR executive committee was preventing the same athlete from making the team multiple times.  In these organizational changes I feel that they are saying, "The Select Team is intended to give as many athletes as possible a chance to experience the Hakone Ekiden," and returning to a time before the 83rd Hakone.

In those days when the Select Team was participation-only there wasn't much discussion about it being abolished, but I have the impression that once its results began to count in the team scoring (especially at the 84th Hakone when the Select Team finished 4th) and the one-school-one-runner rule was broken and one-school-two-runners became the norm the calls for it to be abolished became louder and louder, so now that we are "getting back to our roots" maybe that kind of talk will die down again.

To sum up these changes in one phrase, I think you could say that we've gone back to our roots but lost the added value of what we had gained.  Whatever else happens, I hope that the United-Team-formerly-known-as-Kanto-Region-Select-Team still serves as a motivation for athletes to grow and progress.

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