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Breaking Down the London World Championships Selection Standings

by Brett Larner

The press conference announcing the Japanese women's and men's teams for August's London World Championships is set for this Friday.  It's a complicated selection process with four separate domestic races each to choose the three women and three men who will represent Japan in London. Essentially, any woman who had run under 2:22:30 or man under 2:07:00 within the selection window and took the top spot at one of the selection races would be on the team.

Barring that, the JAAF would consider a pool of ten for each team, the top woman at last August's Hokkaido Marathon and the top three domestic women from November's Saitama International Marathon, January's Osaka International Women's Marathon and March's Nagoya Women's Marathon, and for men the top Japanese man at February's Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon and the top three from December's Fukuoka International Marathon, February's Tokyo Marathon and March's Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon.

Runners in the pool would be evaluated on a range of criteria including finishing time, place, competitiveness versus the winners and their strategy within the race.  The criteria leave wiggle room for the JAAF to play favorites to some degree, a fact that drew intense media and public scrutiny after a highly controversial decision in naming the 2015 Beijing World Championships women's team.

Women
  • Yuka Ando (Suzuki Hamamatsu AC) - 2:21:36 (2nd, Nagoya Women's 2017)
  • Mao Kiyota (Suzuki Hamamatsu AC) - 2:23:47 (3rd, Nagoya Women's 2017)
  • Risa Shigetomo (Tenmaya) - 2:24:22 (1st, Osaka Int'l 2017)
  • Kaori Yoshida (Team RxL) - 2:32:33 (1st, Hokkaido 2016)
  • Mizuho Nasukawa (Universal Entertainment) - 2:33:16 (5th, Saitama 2016)

Looking at the top end of the contenders for the women's team, it looks pretty clear that there is only one possible lineup the JAAF might name.  Yuka Ando (Suzuki Hamamatsu AC) is on the team for sure after clearing the 2:22:30 qualifying standard for 2nd in Nagoya in her debut.  Her Suzuki teammate Mao Kiyota is very likely in after a 2:23:47 for 3rd in just her second career marathon, running most of the race solo after going with Ando and winner Eunice Kirwa (Bahrain) for the first 10 km or so.  Risa Shigetomo (Team Tenmaya) won Osaka in 2:24:22, the third-fastest time among the ten contenders, and with past Olympic and World Championships experience her chances of being picked are at least as good as Kiyota's.

There's no real scenario in which the JAAF would pick Hokkaido winner Kaori Yoshida (Team RxL), who also ran all three of the other selection races without taking the top Japanese spot in any, and even less chance that the top Japanese woman from Saitama, Mizuho Nasukawa (Team Univ. Ent.) will make it.  Altogether it looks like the women's team will be made up of two talented young rising stars and one experienced veteran, a good mix as the Japanese women look to return to the medals after coming up short last time around.

Men
  • Hiroto Inoue (MHPS) - 2:08:22 (8th, Tokyo 2017)
  • Yuki Kawauchi (Saitama Pref. Gov't) - 2:09:11 (3rd, Fukuoka Int'l 2016)
  • Kentaro Nakamoto (Yasukawa Denki) - 2:09:32 (1st, Beppu-Oita 2017)
  • Hiroyuki Yamamoto (Konica Minolta) - 2:09:12 (10th, Tokyo 2017)
  • Yuta Shitara (Honda) - 2:09:27 (11th, Tokyo 2017)
  • Satoru Sasaki (Asahi Kasei) - 2:10:10 (4th, Lake Biwa 2017)

Although women had a 3:18 margin off the 2:19:12 national record to score auto-selection for the London team, at 2:07:00 Japanese men had to run within 44 seconds of the 2:06:16 national record to make it.  Although more than one took a serious stab at doing it, needless to say none did.  Had the men's standard been been based off an equitable margin to the women's five men would have broken it, with Hiroto Inoue (Team MHPS), Yuki Kawauchi (Saitama Pref. Gov't) and Kentaro Nakamoto (Team Yasukawa Denki) all taking the top Japanese spots in their races.  Instead, facing a much harder standard, they are left entirely at the mercy of JAAF politics, and there's more than one possible way it could go.

Inoue looks set, running most of Tokyo at national record pace in his second marathon and taking the top Japanese spot at 8th overall in 2:08:22.  By just about any objective criteria Kawauchi is next in line, having run a brutally aggressive race for 3rd in 2:09:11 in Fukuoka to finish just seconds behind defending World Championships silver medalist Yemane Tsegaye (Ethiopia) and former world record holder Patrick Makau (Kenya).  The third spot is harder to call.

Nakamoto won Beppu-Oita in 2:09:32 with a smart run that saw him up front for most of the race, and as Japan's best championships marathoner of the modern era he'd be an equally smart choice for the team.  But Beppu-Oita was only a second-tier selection event with a weaker field than the other three events, and in Tokyo both Hiroyuki Yamamoto (Team Konica Minolta) and Yuta Shitara (Team Honda) were faster.

There's no chance that the top Japanese man at Lake Biwa, Rio Olympian Satoru Sasaki (Team Asahi Kasei) will make it, but there's a case to be made for Yamamoto over Nakamoto. Off a conservative first half in the second Japanese pack Yamamoto ran 20 seconds faster than Nakamoto and is still on the way up in his career, having been just seconds out of 3rd place at November's New York City Marathon.  Nakamoto needed a comeback run after a few bad years in order to win Beppu-Oita, and there's not much doubt London could be the end of his career.

There's even a plausible scenario in which they could choose Shitara over both Yamamoto and Nakamoto.  In his marathon debut in Tokyo Shitara was fearless and bold, suicidal, some might say, going through halfway in 1:01:55 and despite dying late still coming in faster than Nakamoto's winning time. Although the JAAF said they were looking for negative splits this time they've always loved frontrunning and Shitara earned high praise immediately post-race.  1991 Tokyo World Championships gold medalist Hiromi Taniguchi publicly called for Shitara to be put on the London team, and, in a twist, said Yamamoto should also be on instead of Kawauchi.

That doesn't sound likely, but it's an indication of how much wiggle room there is within the JAAF's methodology that it could be a possibility.  Whatever the final decision, it goes public tomorrow.  Live streaming of the announcement starts at 5:00 p.m. Japan time on Mar. 17.

© 2017 Brett Larner
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