translated and edited by Brett Larner
Following a meeting of the JAAF's Development Committee in Tokyo on Apr. 2, Vice Chairman of Development Katsumi Sakai, 55, commented on the controversy surrounding the selection for the women's marathon team for August's Beijing World Championships. "You absolutely have to go with the lead group from the beginning. It's not about winning. It's about trying to run the target time that we determine. That is the message we have sent," he said of the Federation's exclusion of Tomomi Tanaka (Team Daiichi Seimei), winner of November's Yokohama International Women's Marathon in 2:26:57, in favor of Risa Shigetomo (Team Tenmaya), who ran 2:26:39 for 3rd more than 4 minutes behind winner Tetiana Gamera (Ukraine) after going through halfway with Gamera in 1:11:15, and who is coached by Federation Director of Women's Marathoning Development and Training Yutaka Taketomi.
Both Tanaka's coach, 1991 World Championships silver medalist Sachiko Yamashita, and Federation board executive member Naoko Takahashi, the 2000 Sydney Olympics gold medalist and former marathon world record holder, have publicly questioned and criticized the decision and process. Late last month Sakai spoke with Coach Yamashita directly. Yamashita pointed out that based on the published selection criteria it was not common knowledge that the Federation would prioritize trying to run the sub-2:22:30 standard it set over trying to win the race, to which Sakai said, "That's too bad. We assumed she knew about that." With regard to the fact that some of the selection races had pacers while others did not and that there were differences in the target times between selection races Sakai said, "The Federation is discussing whether or not that's something we should consider making a decision about." He indicated, however, that there will be no change in the future in the Federation prioritizing time trialling over winning.
Translator's note: Sakai was one of the people involved in setting the sub-2:06:30 and sub-2:22:30 standards for the Beijing World Championships team, of which mention of the men's standard, which only one Japanese man has ever cleared, quickly disappeared in race broadcasts as the selection process went on. At the Tokyo Marathon men's selection race Hiroaki Sano (Team Honda) was one of the last two Japanese men to survive in the lead pack until the very late stages of the race, running a PB of 2:09:12. However, he was left off the team in favor of Kazuhiro Maeda (Team Kyudenko), a 2:08:00 runner who ran 2:11:46 for 4th a week after Tokyo at the Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon selection race after making no effort at all to go with Kenyan Samuel Ndungu, who won in 2:09:08. Based on what Sakai says above Sano should have been chosen, but Maeda is a member of the high-priority National Team marathon development project, of which Sakai and Taketomi are two architects, while Sano is not, indicating that other factors are at play than just what Sakai says here.
With regard to the justification Sakai and others on the Federation team selection committee have given for excluding Tanaka that she did not try to run with the lead pack, a look at the splits from Yokohama indicates that this is not true at all. Tanaka was part of the lead group that went through 5 km in 16:57-58, just off the target sub-2:22:30 split of 16:53. When pacer Purity Cherotich lost control and ran the next 5 km in 16:35, 2:19:57 pace, eventual 3rd and 5th-placers Reia Iwade and Azusa Nojiri went with her to hit 10 km in 33:31 while winner Tanaka, 2nd-placer Philes Ongori and 4th-placer Caroline Rotich sped up slightly to hit 10 km in 33:47, 2:22:33 pace. The gap between them was never more than 16 seconds, and within a few km the Kenyan pacer had slowed again and the lead group was back together. From there on out Tanaka was among the leaders before outkicking Ongori for the win in 2:26:48. The description Sakai and the rest of the committee have given of Tanaka's race simply does not match the facts. Compare it to Shigetomo's performance in Osaka, where she pushed the pace against Gamera to 1:11:15 at halfway before abruptly falling off in the 22nd km to finish in 2:26:39, losing to Gamera by more than 4 minutes and to Jelena Prokopcuka, who had been over a minute behind at halfway, by more than 2 1/2 minutes.
Sakai and the committee also claimed that the Yokohama field was not as good as at the other selection races. In Yokohama Tanaka beat defending Olympic gold medalist Tiki Gelana, three women who had run 2:23 within the two years prior to the race, and four other women with better PBs than her 2:26:05 debut. In Osaka Shigetomo had the second-best PB in the field and there were only two women to have run 2:23 in the last two years. Nagoya had only 40-year-old Russian Mariya Konovalova at 2:22:46 and Asian Games gold medalist Eunice Kirwa at 2:23:34 within the last two years. Comparing the three it is clear that that description of the Yokohama field is not factually accurate either.
Nowhere that I have seen is there mention by the committee of the simple fact that the athlete chosen, Shigetomo, 79th at the London Olympics in 2:40:06, is under the care of one of its own, while Tanaka, a two-time National Corporate Half Marathon champion coached by World Championships medalist Yamashita who most recently coached Yoshimi Ozaki to a silver medal at the Berlin World Championships, is not. Surely it's a coincidence that Yamashita is also one of the only female coaches working at the elite end of the sport. In Sakai's statement the committee is unabashedly sending exactly the wrong message to the country's athletes, and its post hoc rationalizations of its decision are an embarrassment for everybody involved, especially for Shigetomo. Likewise for its claim that its decision was unanimous, a claim member Naoko Takahashi has publicly denounced as untrue. She, Yamashita and journalists like Akemi Masuda and Tadashi Imamura are right to continue to shine a light on this scandal and to call for reform of a system that, all too characteristically conforming to the worst stereotypes of Japan, attempts to hide the appearance of impropriety behind a wall of bureaucracy.