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JAAF Director of Men's Marathoning Takeshi Soh Devastated: "We Need Our Fastest Athletes to Come to the Marathon"

translated and edited by Brett Larner

In the Aug. 21 men's marathon on the final day of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics the Japanese men suffered a crushing defeat.  Satoru Sasaki (Team Asahi Kasei) was the top Japanese man at 16th overall, while Hisanori Kitajima (Team Yasukawa Denki) was 94th, falling below even Kenjiro Jitsui's 93rd-place finish at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.  JAAF director of men's marathoning Takeshi Soh, 63, held his head in his hands as he said, "I guess maybe all we can do is try to get our fastest runners to come to the marathon and then build up their stamina."  But with the heavy emphasis placed on running ekidens wearing sponsor company logos, training and development are left up to each individual team.  Lamenting the way they are mired in lasting, deep-rooted tradition, Soh said, "At the present time we just can't seem to do that. We need the JAAF, the corporate leagues and the university association to come together and talk heart to heart."

Coming from a sprint background, Strengthening Committee Director and coach Kazunori Asaba, 55, was also upset.  Results were poor across the athletics team, not just in the marathon.  Of the 30 Japanese athletes entered in individual events just three, Ryohei Arai (men's javelin throw), Daichi Sawano (men's pole vault) and Miyuki Uehara (women's 5000 m), made the final in their event, with an additional three, Asuka Cambridge (men's 100 m), Keisuke Nozawa (men's 400 m hurdles) and Ryota Yamagata (men's 100 m), making it only as far as the semifinals.  In the shadow of the brilliance radiating from the men's 4x100 m relay silver and men's 50 km race walk bronze medals, the problems faced in the lead-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics stand out in stark relief.


Brett Larner said…
I don't think the fundamental problem is the level of the athletes. Soh's athlete Sasaki had the fastest non-African-born qualifying time in Rio, 2:08:56, and finished 5 minutes slower. If your grill keeps burning your burgers I don't think saying, "All we can do is put our best Kobe beef through the meat grinder, then put those on the grill," is going to produce the desired burgers.
Metts said…
Perhaps each corporate team needs to have a few of their runners who only specialize in the marathon and or are not involved in the ekiden races.

Perhaps they can have a few guys train together for the marathon only away from the regular ekiden focused runners, if that is even possible?
Metts said…
And get them a lot of international experience, away from Japanese marathons.

Hmmm... Kawauchi seems OK
Franckie said…
Regarding Marathon I think podium is unrealistic now because many athletes use illegal drugs (EPO etc)
So clean athletes can only hope behind podium;But it's true Brad,Gilli...have achieved good performance
Perhaps the selection is very complicated?
They may be overtrained for the Olympics?
Nate Jenkins said…
It seems to me, very far outside, that the latest generation of the Japanese marathoners are not playing to their strengths at the Olympics. I look at the run of Jared Ward and think of the Japanese. They are a level above Jared but he recognized his limitation and ran within them. I feel like a well prepared top level Japanese with similar racing savvy, similarly prepared for the conditions would have had a real good shot at nipping Rupp in the closing miles and certainly they should have had someone in the top 10. It just seems when they get to the top level they try to race like they have the 10k speed of the Africans and they don't. They need to run smart and pick up the pieces. Long term there are other solutions I'm sure but short term with the talent they have there is simply no reason for there not to be two or three Japanese in the top 10 for both the men's and women's marathons.
Brett Larner said…
Thanks for the comments. I think you're on the money, Nate, and thanks for weighing in. No arguments with your analysis. Clear problems with the high performance end of what they are doing, with having athletes ready mentally and physically, knowing what to do, and racing up to ability.

Metts, yes, I think it's moving in that direction a little bit but part of the problem is that when they race overseas the corporate league management people do everything they can to isolate them from everything happening around them, to keep them inside a Japanese bubble no matter where they are. Hirai, Japan's open water swimmer who made the top 8 in Rio, races a lot outside Japan and said, "It's not enough just to be there. You have to be engaged with it." This is still lost on people in Japanese athletics. Corporate league management people often tell athletes that overseas races are just for experience. Not the experience of racing seriously in an unfamiliar environment, just being there as if that is enough to translate into them becoming Olympic medalists. When they have it instilled in them that racing overseas doesn't matter, that you can run 5-10 minutes slower than your best whenever you run overseas, then, surprise, that's what they do in the big races because that's all they know. Kawauchi and Fujiwara are obviously different.
Anonymous said…
To Nate's comment (and hi Nate, I'm a fan of yours!), your suggestion that the Japanese marathoners lacked racing savvy doesn't hold up to the facts. You make it sound like they ran for the gold and blew up while Jared Ward hung back a la Desi Davila and came on strong. If you look at the 5k splits for the entire field (you can find them on the Rio site or here:, Ward and the top two Japanese finishers ran with the lead pack through 25k. After 25k, Ward hung in there relatively well and then finished strongly in the last 7k while the Japanese completely faded after a relatively pedestrian 25k. So whatever the reason for their failure, it wasn't a lack of racing savvy that caused a poor result. They just faded much earlier than might have been expected.

(As an aside, the third Japanese runner, Kitajima, was terrible from quite early and perhaps this was payback by the olympic gods for the blatant cheating by the Japanese swimmer of the same name who stole a gold in the 100m breaststroke in 2004. As a telling sign about the Japanese media, I've never come across a Japanese who had even heard about the controversy about Kosuke Kitajima's cheating or that the international swimming federation implicitly acknowledged the cheating (take a look on youtube for the video) by changing the rules the following year. Ok, I'm joking about the gods-payback-thing...sort of.)

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