Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Gap Between Japan and the Rest of the World

by Brett Larner

I was asked to give a speech at the welcoming reception the night before this year’s Ageo City Half Marathon about the JRN-arranged invite for the top two Japanese university finishers in Ageo to run March’s NYC Half Marathon. Guests in the audience included Ageo mayor Minoru Shimamura, KGRR chairman and Hakone Ekiden race director Yoshiyuki Aoba, Waseda University head coach Yasuyuki Watanabe and other Hakone university teams’ head coaches, and 1999 World Championships marathon silver medalist Ari Ichihashi. I decided not to prepare anything and just freestyle it. This is a translation of what I can remember saying.

Good evening everybody. If you ever have to give a speech in a foreign language I would advise against drinking sake beforehand. The words don’t come out right. I’m not that strong with honorific language, so if I say things in a rude way I apologize in advance. That is not my intention. To begin with, congratulations to Mayor Shimamura and everyone on the Ageo City Half Marathon executive committee on tomorrow’s 27th running.

“The gap between Japan and the rest of the world.” You hear those words a lot, but what do they really mean? As a foreigner I often wonder about that. A month and a half ago we entered the 2:02 marathon era. 2:02. Needless to say there’s a gap there. How are we non-Africans supposed to deal with that? I don’t know the answer.

But if you look at the history of athletics, the only ones really trying to answer are Japan and the U.S.A. What kind of gap is there between Japan and the U.S.? If you compare them, right now there are 15-20 Japanese men who can break 2:10 for the marathon. In the U.S. there are only two. If you look at the 61-62 minute half marathon range there are more athletes at that level in Japan than in the U.S.A. Many years more Japanese men run 27 for 10000 m than Americans. Among university runners, especially here in the Kanto region, there are far more running 13 minutes for 5000 m than in the United States. There’s no question that there’s a gap there, in a positive meaning. But at the same time, at the Olympics, the World Championships, the World Half Marathon and World XC, Americans are winning medals. For the most part Japanese athletes aren’t, present company excluded, Ms. Ichihashi. So in another sense there is a gap there as well.

This is the fourth year that the NYC Half Marathon is inviting the top two Japanese collegiate runners from the Ageo City Half Marathon, and in the first three years of the two races’ relationship those collegiate runners have delivered results. Every year one of them has beaten an American world-level medalist. In 2012 Toyo University’s Yuta Shitara beat America’s Dathan Ritzenhein. Ritzenhein has run 12 minutes for 5000 m and has won two world-level medals, a bronze at the World Half Marathon and a bronze at World XC. In 2013 Komazawa University’s Kenta Murayama beat 8-time Olympic and World Championships American medalist Bernard Lagat. This year, picked up as an alternate a month before the race, Komazawa’s Ikuto Yufu beat American Meb Keflezighi, the Athens Olympics marathon silver medalist and 4th in the London Olympics marathon. In his next race Keflezighi became the first American Boston Marathon winner in 32 years.

If a young collegiate runner like Yufu can come into a race unprepared and beat a World Marathon Major winner like Keflezighi then what kind of gap is there between them? What kind of gap between the world and Japan, between Japan and the world? I don’t think there is one. When your young athletes are going from here at the Ageo City Half Marathon to New York and beating world-level medalists and seeing that truth for themselves, then five and a half, six years from now at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics their chances of winning a medal are going to be that much higher. I look forward to a great race tomorrow and to seeing the best two collegiates beat world-level medalists, American medalists, again next March at the NYC Half Marathon. Thank you.

(c) 2014 Brett Larner
all rights reserved


TokyoRacer said...

Well done! An off-the-cuff speech in Japanese is impressive. My Japanese is fairly good, but I would not be so bold as to try that.
And I think your remarks suited the occasion very well. Praise for Japanese runners, but a strong hint that racing overseas is very important - which it is, but many older japanese coaches don't seem to realize that.
I hope it was well received.

Desert Dirt said...

This is awesome. Glad you posted it. It immediately kindled memories of the duel up-front in Barcelona to close the '92 Games. What a battle. Would love to see the Japanese contingent shine as the host team in 2020.