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Kawamoto and Sawano Clear Olympic Standards

by Brett Larner

With just a few days to go until the July 11 cutoff for Rio de Janiero Olympics qualification athletes eligible to chase standards under the JAAF's abstruse selection policy have spent the last week doing just that.  Two weeks ago at the National Championships national record holder Sho Kawamoto (Suzuki Hamamatsu AC) won the men's 800 m but came up short of the 1:46.00 Rio standard, running 1:46.22 in rainy conditions.  At Saturday's Nittai University Track and Field Meet in Yokohama he made it, just, winning the 800 m A-heat in 1:45.97.

The next day at the Nihon University Track and Field Meet in Tokyo's western suburbs men's pole vault national record holder Daichi Sawano (Team Fujitsu) cleared the 5.70 m Rio standard with a vault of 5.75 m on his third attempt, adding that credential to his National Championships win.  Little is for certain with the JAAF, but as 2016 national champions, Kawamoto and Sawano hitting the Rio standards within the window means they are likely to be added to the Olympic team.  In Sawano's case that would mean a complete three-man pole vault squad alongside National Championships 2nd and 3rd-placers Hiroki Ogita (Mizuno) and Seito Yamamoto (Toyota) who already held Rio standard marks at the time of the National Championships.

At Nationals Juntendo University second-year Kazuya Shiojiri came up a fraction of a second short of a 3000 mSC national title, frontrunning to a PB of 8:36.45 but clipped at the line by defending national champ Hironori Tsuetaki (Team Fujitsu) who stole the title by 0.06 seconds in 8:36.39.  On Thursday Shiojiri, Tsuetaki and others lined up at the Juntendo University Time Trials in Chiba to try one last time to hit the 8:30.00 Olympic standard.  Tsuetaki was off his game, but Shiojiri again ran with determination, and again he came painfully close.  Shiojiri won in another PB of 8:31.89, the fourth-fastest ever by a Japanese-born university runner.

With only 40 men worldwide likely to line up in the Olympic steeplechase with the 8:30.00 Rio standard five spots remain for athletes to receive invitations to round out the expected field of 45.  Shiojiri's time put him 48th in the world, within range, but with a designated JAAF standard of 8:31.82 for an invitational spot it looks as though he again came up a fraction of a second, 0.07 this time, short of doing something special while still in his teens.  Under JAAF selection guidelines there is a very, very slight chance the JAAF would still nominate Shiojiri if he were offered one of the invitational spots, what you would certainly hope they would do for a high-potential 19-year-old who PBed twice trying to make the team and just missed.  But with so many ifs in that scenario not even Shiojiri believes it will happen, saying on Twitter that he'll work hard for the next four years to make it for real.

5000 m and 10000 m runners are not allowed to chase times under the JAAF protocol, taking some steam out of the four-meet Hokuren Distance Challenge series in Hokkaido.  The first two meets in the series, held Sunday in the town of Shibetsu and Thursday in the town of Fukagawa, were relatively low-key, but Fukagawa did produce at least one noteworthy result.  Named to the Rio team in the men's 10000 m, Yuta Shitara (Team Honda) won the 5000 m A-heat in 13:38.47, four seconds off his best.  Like his fellow Honda runner, Toyo University graduate and Rio Olympian in the men's marathon Suehiro Ishikawa's recent runner-up performance at the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon, Shitara looks to be rounding into shape well for Rio after an uneventful spring.

Also noteworthy in Fukagawa: this year Tokai University, coached by former Saku Chosei H.S. head coach Hayashi Morozumi, has recruited the best class of first-years since Aoyama Gakuin University brought in a future Hakone Ekiden-winning group in 2012, six of Tokai's seven first-years having already broken 14:07 for 5000 m.  Three months into their first year, at Fukagawa three of them broke 14, Shota Onizuka leading the way with a 13:43.61 PB followed by Hayato Seki in 13:50.58 and Ryohei Sakaguchi in 13:51.69.  Like AGU, look for Tokai to make a big impact on the Hakone circuit over the next four years.

A few more chances remain for Japanese athletes to qualify for Rio before the deadline.  Kawamoto and Sawano were the most likely to make it, but as with Anju Takamizawa (Matsuyama Univ.) in the women's 3000 mSC and Julian Walsh (Toyo Univ.) in the men's 400 m at Nationals, there is still a chance someone else with the ambition and motivation may make a last-minute breakthrough this weekend.

© 2016 Brett Larner
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