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Rio de Janeiro Olympics Athletics Day Ten Japanese Results

by Brett Larner

No real surprises in the men's marathon to wrap up the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.  Berlin and London Marathon winner Eliud Kipchoge (Kenya) for gold, Tokyo Marathon winner Feyisa Lilesa (Ethiopia) for silver, Galen Rupp (U.S.A.) stepping up for a medal in bronze, world champion Ghirmay Ghebreslassie (Eritrea) just missing the podium, DNFs for Kenyan and Ethiopian B-men Stanley Biwott and Tesfaye Abera, and irrelevant performances from the Japanese men.  The Japanese men finished in PB order, Satoru Sasaki and Suehiro Ishikawa hanging on to the pack for a while until fading to 16th and 36th, Hisanori Kitajima never in it and finishing 94th in 2:25:11.

Four men born outside Africa qualified for Rio with sub-2:10 times.  The Japanese men were three of them.  Sasaki was the only non-African-born athlete to have qualified sub-2:09.  This was a good team, one of the best in the field.  And yet, they were irrelevant, again.  Hats off to the less accomplished athletes like Alphonce Felix Simbu (Tanzania), Jared Ward (U.S.A.), Callum Hawkins (Great Britain) and Eric Gillis (Canada) who made the top ten.  Sasaki's 2:13:57 for 16th, the 9th-fastest ever by a Japanese man at the Olympics, was exactly in line with most of the rest of Japanese long distance in Rio, a mid-to-high-teens placing and a time just inside the ten fastest-ever Japanese times at the Olympics:

  • men's marathon: 16. Satoru Sasaki, 2:13:57 - JPN Olympic #9
  • women's marathon: 14. Kayoko Fukushi, 2:29:53 - JPN Olympic #8
  • women's 10000 m: 18. Yuka Takashima, 31:36.44 - JPN Olympic #8
  • women's 5000 m: 15. Miyuki Uehara, 15:23.41 (h) - JPN Olympic #8
  • men's 3000 mSC: 11(h). Kazuya Shiojiri, 8:40.98 - JPN Olympic #7

U.S.-based Suguru Osako, part of the Alberto Salazar-led Nike Oregon Project alongside Rupp and Rio gold medalists Matt Centrowitz (U.S.A.) and Mo Farah (Great Britain), deserves credit for beating that curve somewhat, his 13:31.45 the second-fastest 5000 m time ever by a Japanese athlete at the Olympics and his 27:51.94 the third-fastest 10000 m, but even those landed him only 16th in his 5000 m heat and 17th in the 10000 m.  Except for his 10000 m and Uehara's surprising 5000 m performance, none of them made the Japanese Olympic top ten for placing,

So pretty well across the board in Rio, the Japanese spectrum ranged from Sasaki and the other top Japanese athletes running OK times nowhere near what they needed to be competitive and downwards from there.  These are good athletes.  Especially given the strength of the men's marathon team, how could this be?  Brainstorming possible reasons of varying plausibility:

  • The JAAF and coaches are setting the wrong goals.
  • The JAAF and coaches are instilling the wrong mentality.
  • The JAAF and coaches are stuck in the past.
  • The JAAF and coaches don't know how to cultivate their best talent.
  • Their coaches don't know how to peak them for an international championships.
  • They are overtraining for the Olympics (subset of the above).
  • They don't know how to compete internationally.
  • They don't have competitive psychology or can't handle stress.
  • They don't care about medalling or running seriously.
  • They have other reasons for being at the Olympics.
  • Their PBs from domestic races are not what they seem.
  • There are problems with the selection system.
  • Add your theory here.

Exploring those would be another article or two, or three.  Maybe later this week.  But whatever the reasons, the consistent level of Japanese distance performances shows exactly where its bar is being set.  Overall Rio was Japan's best-ever Olympics, 6th overall in the medal count with 12 gold, 8 silver and 21 bronze, medals and podium near-misses coming in a range of sports and events including many outside Japan's traditional strengths. That's great news with the Tokyo Olympics on the horizon, but the men's 4x100 m silver medal aside, the contrast between most of the rest of the Japanese Olympic team and its athletics squad couldn't have been starker.  It's clearly not the case that the Japanese athletes aren't good enough, but it's equally clear that they're not getting what they need to be their best when it counts most.  Other sports have cleaned house and represented Japan in a way that made the country proud.  It's time for athletics to do the same.

Rio de Janeiro Olympics
Aug. 21, 2016
click here for complete results

Men's Marathon
1. Eliud Kipchoge (Kenya) - 2:08:44
2. Feyisa Lilesa (Ethiopia) - 2:09:54
3. Galen Rupp (U.S.A.) - 2:10:05
4. Ghirmay Ghebreslassie (Eritrea) - 2:11:04
5. Alphonce Felix Simbu (Tanzania) - 2:11:15
6. Jared Ward (U.S.A.) - 2:11:30
7. Tadesse Abraham (Switzerland) - 2:11:42
8. Munyo Solomon Mutai (Uganda) - 2:11:49
9. Callum Hawkins (Great Britain) - 2:11:52
10. Eric Gillis (Canada) - 2:12:29
16. Satoru Sasaki (Japan) - 2:13:57
36. Suehiro Ishikawa (Japan) - 2:17:08
94. Hisanori Kitajima (Japan) - 2:25:11

© 2016 Brett Larner
all rights reserved


Unknown said…

I think the focus on domestic runs and titles is a key factor. You know the term Galapagos, right? As much as I love watching the Hakone ekiden, that ability is not translating into Olympic success. Contrast this with race walking where there are no major domestic events - Japan is a contender.

My thoughts,

Bruce said…
In one view, with China, S Korea, Australia, and Russia vacating over 50 medal slots from London, who picked up the slack? USA gained 18, and New Zealand, France, and Canada combined to pick up 20. Host Brazil and Japan each gained only 2. Some Olympic committees seem to be doing something right.

Another angle is the medal per capita. Obviously India and China don't do so well, but the surprise to me is how poorly Japan and USA do. (check out It had been my thought that these two countries have unparalleled high school sports, and that USA's collegiate sports has no equal (in terms of mass participation; Japanese collegiate sports are virtually invisible). Yet it takes 2.6m Americans and 3.0m Japanese to produce a medal. New Zealand (0.25m/medal), Australia (0.8m), GB (0.92m), and Canada (1.6m) are much more efficient. What accounts for that?

(re race walking - Japan high schoolers compete, whereas few American high schoolers do)

Of course, a third way to look might be whose population is healthiest and whose population most enjoys active sports participation throughout life. Maybe that is more important than medals for the elite.
浅野渉 said…
Ekiden races have helped to produce faster runners but they haven't helped to produce tougher runners. If you're running on day 2 of Hakone you're likely running 21-22kms alone. Coaches will pick runners who can run a steady pace in these legs. In the marathon, the pace is constantly changing. Japanese runners can't keep up with the "yusaburi" and end up losing touch early and having to resort to picking up fading runners in the end. The runners need to experience more races where the pace is not constant to be better equipped for races like the Olympics.
Anonymous said…
Just to respond to Bruce, let's put this per-capita silliness to rest. It would be meaningful only if countries were permitted unlimited entries (for those meeting the minimum time standards). Since the U.S. and Japan, etc, are limited to 3 entries, their additional depth doesn't have a chance to bear fruit. There was some crazy number like the USA has 8 of the top 10 sprint hurdlers in the world on the women's side (that number may be slightly off, but it's along those lines). The WR-holder in the event, who set it this season, didn't even make the USA team, as of course USA was limited to 3 entrants.
TokyoRacer said…
Ok, I'll add my theory. It's based on the fact that the American Jared Ward, a 2:13 marathoner, came in 6th, way ahead of the Japanese. What is the difference between him and them? I think it's his single-minded devotion, commitment, whatever word you want to use. He's focused on himself, his own training, no distractions. Whereas the Japanese are stifled by the corporate team system. They can't focus on themselves - every hour of every day they are part of a _team_. (Ok, maybe not 100%, but it's basically true.) They have to do what the other team members do. Have you ever seen a Japanese team training? It's a long line of guys running two-by-two. It's a beautiful thing to watch, but it's not conducive to cultivating individual effort, will, ability to vary pace, etc. And it's harder training alone. You get tougher, physically and maybe more importantly, mentally. Jared Ward was ready to run by himself, his own race, and gut it out to the finish. The Japanese were not.
Anonymous said…
To TokyoRacer's theory, it's an interesting one but I don't see how that could be the explanation given that the Japanese marathoners like Sasaki have run such fabulous times under this system. The one difference to me, and I'm certainly not the first to say it (and it's eluded to in some of the bullets in Brett's list), is that it seems like the Japanese runners race almost exclusively in Japan and lack significant international experience. This is not just facing international competition, which they do see in Japan, but learning to race well when outside their comfort zones and dealing with jet-lag, foreign food, etc etc.

And, to be clear, this is not just a contrast with Jared Ward, who arguably had the most unexpectedly good result of the marathon. Add guys like Callum Hawkins (9th) and Eric Gillis (10th) who have 2:10-2:11 PRs who competed above expectation. (I won't count Galen Rupp based on his credentials and the suspicions around the NOP). The Japanese marathoners were abysmal on both men's and women's sides by comparison.
Bruce said…
To Anonymous - you are spot on regarding depth of USA team in T&F, Swimming, basketball and gymnastics. So I will just say that in the other 38 Olympic summer sports, the USA is just an anonymous face in the crowd. As for Japan: subtract judo, swimming and wrestling, and they are an Olympic no-show.

If you look at the IAAF World U20, Japan medalled same as the Olympics T&F (silver, mens 4x100 in both!) - 2 medals for 26th place. The situation is better if you give points for top 8 finish, getting 10th team place, about same as France, Australia and GB. In good company, just not on the podium.

But as this blog is mostly interested in the longer events, we'll get no solace from the U20. Japanese high schoolers might be equal to or better than North Americans, but the Japanese are no match for U20s from Africa. What makes us think being a few years older will make things better, medal-wise, at the Olympics?

In the end, I don't think it is anyone's fault that the medal counts were low, but there are changes I would wish for. More collegiate sporting opportunities, especially for women. I would like to see coaches show more concern for quality-of-life, displacing some of the insane training practices here in Japan. It would be good for Japanese athletes to be less insular and get off-island to train and compete more often. And I think we spectators should widen our interest beyond the winner and celebrate with more enthusiasm being in the top 100 out of 7+ billion.
Brett Larner said…
Thanks for all the long, thoughtful comments. Bruce, I don't know that I would buy "Cut out all their best events and they were a no-show" as a good line of argument and it's certainly one you could apply to a lot of other places, but I also don't know that I would be willing to call the remaining 3 gold, 2 silver and 10 bronze medals in 8 different sports a "no-show."

I'm less interested in the medal count, though, than in the deficit between athletes' own performances and their results at the Olympics and World Championships. That will never change without serious addressing of the underlying psychological and institutional issues, and until that happens there's not much point talking about medals, with regard to athletics, anyway.

More on the psychological and institutional issues later.
Bruce said…
:) Poor choice of words. Maybe, "unreflective of the broad base and outstanding performances in school sports programs". Do you know of any other like-size countries that have true national high school championships in nearly as many sports as the Olympics? Before I came to Japan, I only knew the American school sports system. In talking with ex-pats here, it seems that many are surprised at how important sports are to the Japanese education system.

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