Something I wrote for another outlet on the 13th but which subsequent events bumped off the priority list.
On Mar. 12 the JAAF held a press conference in Koriyama, Fukushima to introduce the members of its super-prestigious women’s and men’s marathon teams for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. It was the culmination of an almost three-year process to put together a team with the best chance of winning a home-soil medal in the event Japan treasures more than any other. Let’s take a look at that process.
Marathons are a major spectator sport in Japan, with live nationwide broadcasts of its main races. The most important of these, for women the Saitama International Marathon, Osaka Women’s Marathon and Nagoya Women’s Marathon, and for men the Fukuoka International Marathon, Tokyo Marathon and Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon, have traditionally served as selection races for Olympic teams, with consideration sometimes also given to 2nd-tier races like the Hokkaido Marathon and Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon.
Top-performing Japanese athletes in these races would see their names go into a black box from which the JAAF would pick those it felt had the best chance to perform in the main event. Their picks were sometimes controversial, and while the system worked well up to a point, in recent Olympics Japan went home empty-handed. Something had to change for 2020.
For inspiration Japan looked to the U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Marathon. The simplicity and fairness of the U.S. system, in which everyone who wanted to run in the Olympics had to race each other to get there, the top three were named to the Olympic team and the 4th-placer as alternate, coupled with the success of the American women and men in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games marathon, made it appealing. But the idiosyncrasies of the Japanese market meant it would be hard to apply exactly the same model. With a few tweaks to make it work, in 2017 the JAAF proudly announced the Marathon Grand Championship, a three-part system to produce a winning team.
The MGC Series
The tremendous depth of elite Japanese marathoning meant the JAAF could afford to limit its new trials event to only the real contenders for the Olympic team. During a 21-month period from August, 2017 to April, 2019, Japanese athletes could qualify for the trials race if they met tough qualifying standards: sub-2:24:00 for women and sub-2:08:30 for men, or two races within the qualifying window averaging under 2:28:00 for women or 2:11:00 for men. Special preference was given to the eight traditional domestic selection races mentioned above, designated the MGC Series, with slightly easier standards set for the races in the Series.
Part of the success of the U.S. marathon team in Rio was that its trials race was held in very similar conditions in Los Angeles. To try to get as close as possible to what the 2020 marathon team would experience, the JAAF held its trials race, the MGC, in the late-summer heat of Sept. 15, 2019, on what was at the time the future Olympic course.
Like the U.S. trials, the basic model was the top three would make up the Olympic team, with the 4th and 5th-place finishers named as alternates. But there was a problem. The timing of the MGC almost a year out from the Olympics meant that the winter 2019-20 series of major domestic marathons would be irrelevant to the Olympics, and given the popularity and financial clout of those events in the Japanese market that was a non-starter. The solution the JAAF came up with was the Final Challenge.
The Final Challenge
The six major domestic Japanese marathons in the winter season were named the Final Challenge. If a Japanese woman or man ran faster at one of these races than the fastest Japanese times during the MGC qualifying window they would replace the 3rd-placer at the MGC race on the Olympic team, with the 3rd-placer bumped to alternate. If another runner ran faster later in the Final Challenge, that runner would take over the 3rd position.
A total of 15 women and 34 men met the MGC qualifying standards, with Mizuki Matsuda leading the women with a 2:22:23 at the 2018 Berlin Marathon and Suguru Osako the men with a 2:05:50 national record at the 2018 Chicago Marathon. They and others were spurred on to fast times in part by Project Exceed, an incentive project done in tandem with the MGC system that paid 100 million yen, almost $1 million U.S., for a national record, with 10 million yen for a sub-2:22 or sub-2:07, 5 million for a sub-2:23 or sub-2:08, and an additional 50% bonus for the runner’s coach at each level.
Of the qualifiers 10 women and 30 men started last September’s MGC trials event. In the women’s race Honami Maeda and Ayuko Suzuki took the top two spots to secure their places on the 2020 team. Rei Ohara was the provisional 3rd-placer, with Matsuda and Keiko Nogami occupying the alternates’ spots at 4th and 5th. On the men’s side, Shogo Nakamura and Yuma Hattori went 1-2 in a thrilling three-way sprint finish, Osako landing 3rd and Shohei Otsuka and Ryo Hashimoto 4th and 5th.
In the early races of the Final Challenge nobody came close to Matsuda’s and Osako’s marks, but at January’s Osaka Women’s Marathon Matsuda scored the win in 2:21:47 to move into the provisional 3rd place on the 2020 team. In Tokyo Osako did the same, breaking his own national record with a 2:05:29 to reinforce his provisional position.
The bars had been raised for the last two races of the Final Challenge. At Lake Biwa, top Japanese man Naoya Sakuda ran only 2:08:59, cementing Osako’s place on the Olympic team. But in Nagoya, 22-year-old Mao Ichiyama won in a stunning 2:20:29, replacing Matsuda on the team and knocking her back to 2nd alternate behind Ohara. For whatever the Final Challenge may have taken away from the fairness of the MGC trials race, it paid off many times over in the heights to which it pushed Japan’s best, and in keeping fans hooked on the excitement right up to the very end.
When all was said and done, Japan had these two teams on its hands:
Mao Ichiyama (22) – 2:20:29 (Nagoya Women’s Marathon 2020)
Honami Maeda (23) – 2:23:48 (Osaka Women’s Marathon 2018)
Ayuko Suzuki (28) – 2:28:32 (Hokkaido Marathon 2018)
1st alternate: Rei Ohara (29) – 2:23:20 (Nagoya Women’s Marathon 2016)
2nd alternate: Mizuki Matsuda (24) – 2:21:47 (Osaka Women’s Marathon 2020)
Suguru Osako (28) – 2:05:29 (Tokyo Marathon 2020)
Yuma Hattori (26) – 2:07:27 (Fukuoka International Marathon 2018)
Shogo Nakamura (27) – 2:08:16 (Berlin Marathon 2018)
1st alternate: Shohei Otsuka (25) – 2:10:12 (Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon 2018)
2nd alternate: Ryo Hashimoto (26) – 2:09:29 (Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon 2019)
Before the press conference on Mar. 12, eight of the ten members of the teams prayed together at the grave of Kokichi Tsuburaya, bronze medalist in the men’s marathon the last time Tokyo hosted the Olympic Games in 1964. Japan is typically risk-averse in its bureaucratic decision-making, and it’s hard to overstate how uncharacteristic it is for the powers that be to take a gamble on a completely new approach to putting together something as important as its marathon squad for a home-soil Olympics. It’s a measure of how much a medal in that event would mean that they took that gamble.
The pressure and weight of expectation is almost unimaginable, as borne out by Tsuburaya’s tragic suicide before the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. On paper the teams the MGC system produced look like the best Japan has ever had. The final judgment on whether the gamble paid off will come on the streets of Sapporo this summer.
© 2020 Brett Larner, all rights reserved