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Kobayashi Wins London Bronze Without Hakone Experience While Hakone Veteran Kawauchi Fails to Make Top 8

The World Championships in athletics were first held in Helsinki, Finland in 1983. Up until the 1991 Tokyo World Championships they were held once every four years, but beginning with the 1993 Stuttgart World Championships they switched to an every other year format. London this year was the 16th edition. To date 68 men with Hakone Ekiden experience have competed in the World Championships, with three of them winning medals in the marathon.

In Tokyo in 1991 Hiromi Taniguchi became the first Japanese World Championships gold medalist, raising the excitement level at the games.  As a student at Nittai University Taniguchi had won the Hakone Ekiden's downhill Sixth Stage three years in a row from 1981 to 1983. As a fourth-year in 1983 he set a new stage record of 57:47. Course changes have rendered his record an historical artifact, but Taniguchi is still considered Hakone's greatest downhill runner.

At the 1999 Seville World Championships and 2005 Helsinki World Championships, Chuo University graduate Nobuyuki Sato and Yamanashi Gakuin University graduate Tsuyoshi Ogata each won bronze medals. These days Sato coaches at Asia University and Ogata and Hiroshima Keizai University, both helping to shape the way forward.

But an athlete of a different color was Meiji University graduate Takehiro Sonohara. At the 1983 Helsinki World Championships Sonohara competed in the 20 km race walk as a student at Meiji, finishing 46th. Already Japan's leading race walker, Sonohara ran the Hakone Ekiden's Eighth Stage for Meiji in 1984 and 1985. After graduating he went on to finish 21st in the 50 km race walk at the 1987 Rome World Championships.

At the London World Championships this year another athlete with two sides represented at a high level. Up until his third year at Waseda University Kai Kobayashi had tried to make Waseda's Hakone Ekiden starting team before switching his main focus to race walking. In London he won the bronze medal in the 50 km race walk. At the same time, athletes with Hakone experience struggled.

The men's long distance team was made up of only the three marathoners, with not a single athlete sent to London in distance events on the track. Having run the 2007 and 2009 Hakone Ekiden's Sixth Stage as part of the Kanto Region University Select Team while a student at Gakushuin University, Yuki Kawauchi ran a gutsy race but finished only 9th, failing to make the top eight by 3 seconds.

The concept behind the Hakone Ekiden is "developing athletes who can compete at the world level." It is to be hoped that at the next World Championships in Doha in 2019 and then at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics more veterans of the Hakone Ekiden will bring the same quality of running to that world level.

Translator's note: This article contains one oversight. Hironori Tsuetaki, a four-time Hakone runner for Chuo Gakuin University, ran the 3000 m steeplechase in London. The article, which has sparked a lot of discussion, seems to suggest the school of thought that the Hakone Ekiden is burning out potential medalists. While it's true that Kobayashi didn't run Hakone and medalled in London while neither Kawauchi nor any of the other three Hakone veterans who ran in London medalled, the suggestion of a causal relationship between the two would be questionable at best.

Given that Kobayashi was unable to make Waseda's Hakone team, other conclusions you could draw are that he is a better walker than runner, that it's easier to medal in race walking than in the marathon or on the track, or that there is no connection between the two. It's worth noting that the three Japanese marathon medalists mentioned in the article were all Hakone Ekiden stage winners, no other non-stage winner has ever medalled, and none of the four athletes in London with Hakone experience ever won their stages. If you were inclined to draw conclusions from such a small data set this might suggest that being one of the very best Hakone runners, a stage winner, is a prerequisite to success at the World Championships level.

source article: http://www.hochi.co.jp/sports/feature/hakone/20170815-OHT1T50154.html
translated by Brett Larner
photo by Ekiden Mania, © 2017 Kazuyuki Sugimatsu, all rights reserved

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