translated by Brett Larner
Regarding the men's and women's marathon selection for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, on Mar. 29 the JAAF announced a new selection process in which the top two Japanese men and women at a new Olympic Trials marathon to be held in the fall of 2019 or later will be named to the team. Beginning this fall the existing set of selection races will become qualifying races, with athletes needing to clear specified times and placings in order to qualify for the Olympic Trials race. In that way Olympic marathon team selection will become a two-stage process, a major change from the current process of comparing the results in different races and one that ensures transparency in national team selection. The move is expected to be confirmed at next month's JAAF executive board meeting.
With the Japanese marathoning world in the midst of a downtown the move is a major shakeup, the JAAF's shift in policy toward a "one-shot Trials race" in preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics now clear. The Olympic Trials marathon will be held in the fall of 2019 or later, with the top two men and top two women scoring places on the Tokyo 2020 team. The single remaining spot on each team will be awarded to the fastest man and woman under the JAAF's auto-qualifier time in one of the existing selection races during the fall 2019 to spring 2020 season. If nobody clears the auto-qualifier time the third spot will go to the 3rd-place finisher at the Olympic Trials event.
The primary merit of the new process is transparency in team selection. In the past national team selection has always been controversial due to the subjectivity of comparing multiple races with different race evolution and weather conditions. Under the system, men can qualify for the Olympic Trials marathon at Fukuoka International, Tokyo, Lake Biwa Mainichi and Beppu-Oita Mainichi, women at Saitama International, Osaka International and Nagoya Women's, with both men and women also having the option to qualify at the Hokkaido Marathon. High-placing finishers at the Augusts's London World Championships and 2018 Asian Games will also qualify. With all of the country's best gathered together at the "one-shot battle" Trials race, selection going to the athletes who can convince everyone of their value.
It is also hoped that the move will be an impetus for development. No Japanese athletes have made the podium of an Olympic marathon since the 1992 Barcelona Olympics for men and the 2004 Athens Olympics for women. At the Rio Olympics none even made the top ten. JAAF Marathon and Long Distance Project Leader Toshihiko Seko, 60, commented, "We're not going to get better overnight. It's going to take about three years of steady work." The long Olympic Trials qualification window from this summer through the spring of 2019 encourages athletes to think medium and long-term in their planning. By putting focus on marathon development the JAAF aims to better identify and cultivate talent.
The venue for the Olympic Trials marathon and other details remain to be settled. A source at the JAAF expressed caution, pointing out, "There is a possibility that we might see one-hit wonders who run well only at the Olympic Trials. I hope that people will remember that it is important to evaluate stability and that the primary objective is to choose people who can win medals." Full details of the new system will be officially announced in early April and confirmed by the executive committee mid-month.
Past Olympic Team Selection Controversies
- 1988 Seoul Olympics: With the Fukuoka International Marathon designated as a one-shot Olympic Trials to determine the men's team, Toshihiko Seko was unable to start the race due to injury. Criticism flew when the JAAF gave Seko an additional chance to qualify.
- 1992 Barcelona Olympics: Yuko Arimori scored a place on the Olympic team by finishing 4th at the previous year's World Championships. Osaka International 2nd-placer Akemi Matsuno publicly appealed to the JAAF to be chosen, and controversy arose when she was left off.
- 2004 Athens Olympics: Defending gold medalist Naoko Takahashi was left off the team after she failed to win her selection race. Takahashi's popularity sparked a massive public outcry for her to be included on the team.
- 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics: Kayoko Fukushi won the Osaka International Women's Marathon. Despite running an excellent time her place on the Olympic team was not confirmed by the JAAF, leading her to enter the Nagoya Women's selection race just over a month later. Criticism after criticism was levelled against the ambiguous selection criteria.
Translator's note: JRN has advocated a plan almost identical to this, the existing selection races serving as qualifiers for a new Olympic Trials race, for years. The JAAF depends upon revenue from the TV broadcasts of the existing selection races for a significant part of its budget, meaning that is has always had disincentive to do anything to change the status quo in that regard. This is the primary reason for the dogged persistence in maintaining the Saitama International Marathon as a women's selection race and refusal to include the Tokyo Marathon, the highest-level women's race in Japan, in women's selection.
At the same time, the large number of races means that the best athletes rarely face each other, and the opaque selection criteria have meant that the outcome of the races with regard to national team selection was usually not known for months afterward. Both of these significantly lower the interest of the TV broadcasts to the average viewer, damaging the broadcasts' value as revenue generators for the JAAF.
There is nothing Japanese fans want to see more than all the good athletes going head-to-head in one race, meaning that a one-shot Olympic Trials broadcast would be of tremendous value, but every corporate league coach and JAAF official with whom JRN has talked about the idea over the years has had the same response: "No, that would lower the value of the existing races and hurt the JAAF's revenue stream, and we can't have that." Evaluating business decisions based primarily on how they would hurt the status quo rather than how they might add value is a commonality in Japan, but it is pretty clear that the addition of a massively popular new event would create a bigger and better fan base, and this would have trickle-down benefits for the existing races. You can see that in the increasing popularity of the New Year Ekiden on the back of the Hakone Ekiden. It's good to see that the JAAF is finally going to take the plunge, but although the article above contends that the primary reason is transparency you can be sure that that is at least in the passenger seat alongside the financial potential.
In that light, the possibility that the third spot on the teams could be determined by a fast run in one of the domestic races can be read as a way to keep the existing selection races, and their broadcasts, relevant in the pre-Olympic season. That's a pretty good idea, even if it makes the "one-shot battle" not really a single shot. The absence of the Tokyo Marathon from the lists of women's qualifying races remains frustrating and shows that, whatever IAAF gold label and World Marathon Majors trappings they decorate it with, in the eyes and heart of the JAAF Tokyo remains what it always has been: a race for elite men.
To be fair, though, with a smaller pool of female athletes to work with, five qualifying races would dilute things even further. This is part of the reason for the biggest diversion of the JAAF's plan from JRN's concept, the total absence of international race results from consideration. Japanese athletes' inability to compete seriously outside Japan is the thing that most urgently needs to be worked on, and you might think that making it possible to qualify for the Trials by running well overseas, say by clearing a stricter time standard or making the top five in an IAAF gold label race, top three in a silver label race, or winning a bronze label race, would be a big help in rectifying that problem.
But doing that would again be a dilution of the pool, resulting in fewer top-level athletes available to run the domestic selection races and hurting both their value and the JAAF's bottom line. So, everything that counts has to happen domestically. But the silver lining is that with a two-year window to run a qualifying mark, say a four-marathon span, the qualifying mark only has to be achieved domestically once, and that frees the athletes to race more internationally the rest of the time. There's still the potential for insanity like Yukiko Akaba not being named to the 2013 World Championships despite finishing 3rd at the London Marathon that year, but all in all the new process looks like a step in the right direction.