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"If You Just Want to Buy Your Way It Will Never Succeed" - Tsutomu Akiyama Part II

Part two of a 2010 interview with Tsutomu Akiyama, one of the people responsible for bringing the first Kenyans into Japan's high school, collegiate and corporate running worlds. Read part one here.

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Can you talk more about World Half Marathon Championships silver medalist Philes Ongori?

Well, as of April she’s leaving and going back to be based in Kenya. She’s superb up to the half marathon. She has run in the 67:30’s. At the World Half in the U.K. she ran 67:38 and came 2nd, just beating 3rd at the very end. But looking toward the marathon…she can train up to what’s necessary for the half marathon, but the marathon has to be double that. I don’t know how that’s going to turn out. I can’t say one way or the other.

Looking back a bit, when she came over in high school she was running 2:23 for 800 m. The first stage of the National High School Ekiden is the same as the first stage of the National Inter-Prefectural Ekiden. On the first stage of the National High School Ekiden Philes was 22nd when she was a first-year. She wasn’t fast at all. If she’d gone straight to a jitsugyodan team instead of high school it might have been different, but you can’t do that at that age. Since it was high school she had a lot to adjust to, studying and classes. Her second year she was a bit better. She went out alone in the lead and ended up getting overtaken for 2nd by someone coming out of the chase pack. If she hadn’t worked hard that year she wouldn’t have been able to get onto a company team. She was 2nd again her third year, but the time she ran was faster than what the pros in the Inter-Prefectural Ekiden run for the same stage, 19 minutes flat for 6 km. She only lost it at the end and was just off the course record of 18:52 or 3. Out of all the people, high school and pro, who have run that stage only one person has ever broken 19 minutes, so that shows how much she improved in just three years.

At the National High School Championships the summer of her third year she ran 2:05 for 800 m and was 2nd. I think she ran around 8:55 for 3000 m in the same meet, and 4:11 for 1500 m. She was 1st in both of those. As I said, by the time she was a third-year her level had very dramatically risen. I’ve watched her career for eight years, and she has steadily shown improvement. Her first half marathon she ran 71, but she was only doing halves once or twice a year. Then, last year, she ran 67:38, her PB. I don’t even know how many times she has run 68. But, the marathon requires so much more…

I go over to watch the cross-country races in Kenya every year so I’ve seen how bad the surfaces on the courses are myself. Like Samuel Wanjiru, if Philes ran cross-country there I don’t think she could make the team. Once they ran the course on beautiful grass in Mombasa, at a golf course. The most beautiful one in Mombasa. When Philes ran there she was 2nd. After she came here she was 17th. If you finish 17th you can’t make a national team. Junior high school students were faster than her. So I told her, “It’s better if you don’t run cross-country anymore.” Last year she didn’t try out and instead ran a half marathon in Dubai where she ran 1:07:50-something and I think was 3rd. Even with that she got $10,000.

The young Kenyan who won the World Half Marathon Championships, Mary Keitany, is at another level entirely. She’s running high 66 to low 67, 30 or 40 seconds faster than Philes. She can take it easy in a race and then partway through just leave the rest of the field behind. She’s the only one who can do that. Philes is more the kind who will run further back in the pack and then overtake people. Which means she’ll only finish 2nd against someone like [Keitany]. If there’s an Ethiopian she’ll take it over Philes. Last year I went and called out to her with 1 km to go, and she just picked it up enough to take 3rd. I think in training she needs to do a half like that, then go and run another 2 km hard. With that kind of preparation in her she’ll be able to surge from 2 km out, and that will make a difference. I don’t think she herself realizes that her finish is weak. That’s why I don’t think it’s going to be so easy for her to go up to the marathon. If she trains like that, then maybe one more time for the half in Dubai, then she can see.

To be honest I wanted her to run the Tokyo Marathon in February this year, but she herself…well, there’s an agent involved, so it’s complicated [laughs]. That agent was deceptive. I think Philes would have made more money and had a better, more stable career if she had stayed here, but this Italian agent probably told her, “You’re good enough to win Boston. Think of how much money you could make if you win there.” Once an athlete hears that, it’s all that’s going to be on their minds. I think the agent was fleecing her, but she’s old enough to make her own decisions and nobody can say whether it was the right move or not. In five years she’ll know if she made the right decision, but until then there’s no way to know. The agent problem is a difficult one. A lot of them are Italians.

That was going to be one of my questions. Kenyans racing in Europe and North America generally have a one-on-one relationship with an agent, but for Japan-based athletes the corporate team management is also involved, so it seems like the potential for problems triples.

In terms of money, there is no question that they are better off being based in Japan affiliated with a jitsugyodan team. They will make more money in Japan. However, when it comes to the World Championships and Olympics, when the Kenyan federation is selecting the team, if an athlete isn’t dealing with a federation-approved agent who is there to push the athlete’s name to the federation…People like David Okaya, the #2 man in the Kenyan federation, are the one who make the decisions. The agents who have direct access to him will get their athletes on the national teams.

For the marathon or the 10000 m Kenya can easily pick four or five guys and then later settle which three will run. In Japan we have more limited numbers, so we have to carefully pick the three best and if someone can’t run then only two will be there. Kenya and Ethiopia will have three people in the race no matter what. As we saw in Beijing, they select five, and if someone is not ready they will send them home and run the best three. I think this has become a rule there, and I think they should do it there, in Kenya and Ethiopia. As a result of it you know that whoever runs is ready to go. On the Japanese team people pulled out and we only had two men and two women in the marathon. But, I think this is one area where you can easily see the potential for some abuses.

Getting shoes from sponsors, that’s no problem at all. Asics will readily supply shoes, Mizuno will readily supply shoes. But apart from that, what exactly goes on when the agents and the Boston Marathon director or the London Marathon director talk, what the agents promise…In Japan there aren’t any agents, right? Well, there’s one American, Brendan Reilly, but he’s way too nice. He might know everybody in the industry in the U.S. but in Europe it’s another story. You wouldn’t believe what the Italian agents are like.

In that context, look at Kenyans who quit here, like for example Suzuki’s Lucy Wangari. She was very strong and had run in the Olympics. She quit Suzuki and went back to be based in Kenya, and I’m sure one of the main reasons was because someone was promising her she could make more money. Sure, she’ll make money if she’s winning races, but even if she wins the agents will take 15% and whatever expenses there were, like telephone calls or whatever. So in this area I think foreign agents are intrusive and deceptive. I believe the athletes would be better off remaining with a stable Japanese team.

Another problem is that female athletes are going to get boyfriends, and male athletes are going to get girlfriends. For the male runners it’s doesn’t affect their running and they can have long careers. The female runners are going to get pregnant and have a shortened career. If you look at Catherine Ndereba, she didn’t really get started until after that happened, right? That’s unusual. If they get pregnant usually that’s it, it’s over for female athletes. That’s one of the big differences in dealing with male and female athletes, the Kenyan men have long careers but the women’s are short. Ndereba didn’t really become world-class until after she had children. I think that’s a good way to go. Ndereba’s got a good head on her shoulders.

The people in the Kenyan federation don’t get much in the way of salary, so maybe there’s some incentive there for them to persuade athletes to come back and be based in Kenya, because then more money will pass through their hands. That kind of temptation is there, I’m sure.

Nissin’s Gideon Ngatuny was involved in some kind of mess last year with the Kenyan federation and agents.

Yes, that’s right. It wouldn’t be accurate to say he’s going to go back to Kenya this year, but…Gideon is here because I saw him run with my own eyes. Stephen Mayaka discovered him and showed him to me. I went to Kenya and watched him run in the cross-country championships, where he was 2nd in the junior race. I knew he was going to be good. 2nd in the junior race was impressive. Nissin was looking for a new runner, so when I came back I told them that I had someone for them. When they saw Gideon they just said, “Wow.”

But before they saw him, they weren’t sure because they couldn’t see his day-to-day training. I saw him race cross-country so I knew how good he was, but Nissin’s coach couldn’t see him and didn’t know whether he was a good athlete or not. Even seeing a video of the race, all the other athletes were unknowns so it was hard to gauge how strong he was against them. When I saw Gideon, Mekubo Mogusu happened to be back in Kenya, so I had them do a run together, Gideon and Mogusu. They did a track 5000 m. Gideon didn’t know how many laps of the track that was. It’s 12 1/2 laps, but he had never run 12 1/2 laps on the track before. With 50 m to go Mogusu outkicked him, but Gideon thought he still had to run further. [laughs] He didn’t know anything about running on the track. That’s the kind of state we found him in.

We brought him to Japan pretty shortly after that. It was no problem bringing him. His brother and father strongly supported it. Once he got here, he suddenly became very strong, out of nowhere. Lots of people started sniffing around him and there was a lot going on, probably a lot of temptation for him. It’s pretty tough to get him to stay here, and it would be a nightmare to be responsible for that. Now he has a contract with Nike, but I’m not sure who’s representing him in that.

In Japan, a lot of the head coaches don’t know anything about how the agent business works. They have no idea about what’s involved with racing overseas outside the Olympics or World Championships. Even the ones who do overseas training camps. There aren’t any athletes like that either, strong ones who are getting approached by foreign agents, no men or women. In all of Japanese distance running I don’t think there are any right now. For sprinting it doesn’t really matter because only Japanese distance runners are really valuable on the international market. Mayaka didn’t do it right. He got permission by himself to work as an agent from the Japanese federation, not the Kenyan federation. I know it’s true because you can see it if you search for it online. The Kenyan federation was wondering what was going on because Mayaka was registered in Japan but not there.

Brendan was only working with Japanese athletes here, but recently he signed Gideon and another athlete, a short one whose name I can’t remember. This short guy really bothered Brendan a lot. He was always saying, “I want to run this race, or this race,” but then he would always drop out. It was a real headache for Brendan. It’s not that easy to be an agent in Japan. You need to have a lot of athletes, and maybe one or two of them will have good results.

Brendan works with all the Japanese athletes. The marathoner Yoshimi Ozaki is with him. Any Japanese athlete who performs well, Brendan will pick them up. Since he has so many he’s always going to do okay because sooner or later one of them will get a hit. It’s not that costly to keep Japanese athletes as an agent. He just comes to Japan, goes to the races, meets people, talks, then goes home. It’s all fine. But keeping Kenyans and Ethiopians, now that’s tough. When you go to a major race or to Kenya it’s incredible and you can see it right away. All the colored people are athletes. All the white people are agents. You have to be very careful because they always take the best part of everything. Japanese people don’t know about that kind of thing.

Looking at Mogusu, in his mind he knows that you can make plenty of money in Japan, and maybe at this point he’s thinking of it as home. Thinking in those terms, Kennedy Manyisa joined Toyota. His first year wasn’t any good, but his second year he really improved. He had run the marathon in the World University Games in Buffalo, U.S.A. in the 80’s before graduating. In the summer heat in Buffalo he ran 2:12. When he went back to visit in Kenya after that people were approaching him about running Boston, telling him he could get $150,000 and a Mercedes if he won. But he never got it. He never beat that marathon time and would always drop out partway. No good at all. The very top people in Kenya had deceived him by talking about the money he could make. It’s still the same way now. “Hey, leave Japan, you should come back home and work from here.” But when they do they find that their wife has left and taken everything with her while they were in Japan. There’s nothing left. [laughs] That’s pretty much the way it goes, you know?

When the athletes you bring over first get here I imagine they have a lot of problems. The language, the food, the weather. If you look at the life of a Kenyan athlete who spends their time in Europe or the States winning prize money and the life of a Kenyan who runs for a jitsugyodan team in Japan, what do you think the benefit of being in Japan is for the athlete?

Personally I think there’s a lot of variation in the environment between Japanese teams. For men, Toyota, Nissan, Nissin, Konica Minolta, they’re all very different from each other. It’s fine if someone knows what the conditions are like here versus there, but for example in the case of Gideon, if he goes over and races in Europe or America, even if he wins, and he’s someone with the potential for the 10000 m world record, after he’s number one, not really that much money is going to come in. Nissin already pays him more than that kind of money as an annual salary. Isn’t it a better idea to stay based with Nissin and fit those payday races into the schedule? The bonus he’d get for winning his stage at the New Year Ekiden is much better than what he’d get elsewhere.

That’s easy to say, of course, but then again now they’ve put all the Kenyans together on the same stage. Paul Tanui won it this year. There’s a bigger bonus for winning the stage, and although Gideon is more than fast enough for that he missed out on a lot of money because he didn’t win the stage. It all depends on the company because the bonuses vary from company to company. If an athlete can get on a team with a good bonus structure then they will do much better than they would working with an agent.

If an athlete is signed with an agent, the agent will usually be putting them into many races in Europe or the States. Some of those are going to conflict with Japanese races, especially in track season. If there is a conflict the jitsugyodan team will of course want the athlete to run the Japanese race. If a Japanese company pays a percent to the agent then it’s good for the agent too, better than American or European races. If you race in Europe you’re also going to be facing Ethiopians. 10000 m races often go 26 minutes. We have 26 minute-level races in Japan too, but if you run a 26 somewhere the jitsugyodan team is going to pay out a large bonus. For 27-minute guys, no matter where they go over there they’re not going to win. Here you know the company team will definitely give a good bonus for a 27, so it’s a much better environment financially. However, if you have a base in Kenya or Ethiopia you can always go back and visit, and that’s good for their state of mind. Moreover, both Kenya and Ethiopia are poor countries.

Wanjiru has long since gone back to Kenya, now. He’s strong enough that he knows he can run and win and that the money is going to come in. How much does he get for winning, $100,000 something? More if there’s a course record. Looking at him, you know he is getting even more for just showing up. He ran for Toyota Kyushu for a long time and then just left suddenly and said he wasn’t going to do it anymore. It’s different if you want to try to do that in the marathon or the 10000 m. I feel that Gideon is going to go the same way as Wanjiru, but although he has run well in the 10000 m and recently the half marathon he doesn’t have what it takes for the marathon yet. He is still at the point where he fades in the last part of a half marathon. In the marathon, Wanjiru specializes there. He won the Olympics, so wherever he goes he’s going to first-class treatment. Whatever he wants. If you’re not that level, you go and run, and if you win the money comes in. If not, you’re not getting a payday. Not everyone is going to get a $50,000 appearance fee. That’s the difference between a no-name and a famous athlete.

So, most of the other athletes who come to Japan don’t run the marathon. They focus on the short distances of the ekiden. For Wanjiru, he won Fukuoka, he won Beijing, whatever marathon he runs he’s not going to lose. That’s going to mean a lot of money. [laughs] I saw him in Nairobi recently and he said, “Oh, Mr. Akiyama, dinner’s my treat tonight.” [laughs] That’s the kind of rich man he is now. When he was here he had a good salary, but not that much if you compare to what he gets now. In one marathon now he can make a year’s salary if he wins and you add up his prize money and his appearance fee. Other Kenyans, say Samuel Nganga, can he do the same thing? Ganga can’t do that. If he entered a marathon people would just say, “Whatever, one more Kenyan.”

I sometimes get email from students at American universities interested in joining jitsugyodan teams. For example, I had a message from a guy last week who was sub-14 for 5000 m and around 28:30 for 10000 m and is graduating soon. He wants to become a good marathoner and thinks learning from a Japanese coach will help him get there. Do you think joining a jitsugyodan team would help someone like that reach his goals?

Well, if he could get onto a team he would definitely improve, but the trick would be getting hired. It’s not just a matter of his times. There are plenty of guys that level in Japan, and there is the question of whether he would be satisfied with a Japanese salary. A runner that level might be able to get onto one of the lower-level teams, but even so he would get better.

Jeff Schiebler definitely improved.

Yes, Jeff become great. But you know, way back when I saw him running with Mayaka I knew he was better than Mayaka.

Do you have any advice for people interested in learning about Japanese marathon training or joining Japanese teams?

Well, in terms of coming to Japan, there are, what, 40 teams in the New Year Ekiden? Many of them don’t have foreign runners. I think there are opportunities with teams like that. The teams that already have foreigners are not going to take more as they only need one or two. There is also the understanding with the coach. If there is a good personal connection then the opportunity will open up. Get a position, do Japanese-style training for the marathon, then you can run one of the Japanese marathons, or London, and if you clear that hurdle then you will continue to improve bit by bit.

You’re not going to see a sudden, dramatic jump in performance the first time. You’ll also have to run ekidens. But even Douglas Wakiihuri, he didn’t just suddenly become a good marathoner. He ran many, many ekidens. But even though I think Japanese marathoning knowledge will continue to spread, it’s important to realize that it’s not just something for sale. The understanding and personal relationships are important, and from that the business side will follow. Japan isn’t just selling its knowledge. There would be no human connection if we did that. If you understand that and want to learn in that kind of relationship it can work. If you just want to buy your way, it will never succeed.

In the final part of his interview Akiyama looks at Japanese discrimination and the role it plays in recent moves to restrict foreign runners' participation in ekidens to the point of near elimination. He examines the possible effects this may have on the next generation of Japanese distance runners and offers his view of the future.

© 2010 Brett Larner, all rights reserved

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