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Japanese Athletes to Watch at Tokyo Olympics

As of right now, five days into the Tokyo Olympic Games, Japan leads the medal standings with 13 gold, 4 silver and 5 bronze medals. Across sports Japanese athletes have been performing at the top level, showing both the benefits of increased investment in development over the last eight years since Japan won the 2020 Olympic bid and the home ground advantage. Track and field starts tomorrow, and while compared to some other sports it's one of Japan's weaker spots, it has a realistic shot at six medals with another eleven top 8 finishes in range. Your guide to who to watch for from the home team on the track, field and roads.

Medal Chances

Back when Japan first competed in the Olympics in Stockholm in 1912 it had exactly two athletes on its entire team, one marathoner and one sprinter. 109 years later not much has changed. Distance and sprints are still Japan's best chances of medaling, the race walks taking the place of the marathon, and the 4x100 m relay one of the most anticipated events for the home crowd. Even the 110 m hurdles features in Japan's medal chances, not that far off Japan's original Olympic configuration.

Four of Japan's medal chances are in the men's race walks, two each in the 50 km and 20 km, and with the third member of each squad having the potential for a top 8 finish these are going to be Japan's strongest events. In the 50 km, Satoshi Maruo and Hayato Katsuki have the two fastest times in the Olympic field this year, and with national record holder Masatora Kawano ranked #4 in the field it's likely we'll see at least one medal.

In the 20 km, Japanese men have three of the seven fastest times worldwide this year, with the fastest, Toshikazu Yamanishi, sitting at #1 in the world rankings and both Koki Ikeda and Eiki Takahashi in the top 10. China looks like the toughest competition, with three of the four fastest times this season, but given the strength of the Japanese squad at least one of them placing in the medals is realistic.

The men's 4x100 m relay team won silver medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics and took bronze at both World Championships since Rio. It's stronger than ever, with three team members, Ryota Yamagata, Yuki Koike and Yoshihide Kiryu having bests under 10 seconds and a fourth, fast-start specialist Shuhei Tada, having run a 10.01 PB this season and beaten NR holder Yamagata at last month's National Championships. They have the 4th-fastest time this season and are ranked #3, and they are carrying the weight of heavy national expectations. If they respond to it like the Japanese athletes in other sports have these Olympics then something special might be on the way.

The biggest surprise at Nationals was the massive breakthrough by Juntendo University student Shunsuke Izumiya in the men's 110 m hurdles. Izumiya ran 13.06 to win, not only breaking the national record but good enough to put him at #2 in the world this year. One great race doesn't make him a solid medal threat, but if he can handle the pressure then he's not a non-factor either. Even making the final would be a major step that would pay off in Paris three years from now, so let's hope his head's in the right place and he runs as relaxed as he did at Nationals.

Top 8 Chances

All six men in the 20 km and 50 km race walks have good chances of making the top 8 or even medaling, but in the women's 20 km race walk too there's a realistic chance of seeing a top 8 placing. NR holder Kumiko Okada hasn't been in good form this season, but if she's anywhere near back to her best she could finish as high as 6th behind what looks like a possible medal sweep by China.

Field events are Japan's second-weakest area behind middle distance, but in the men's long jump they'e got two potential top 8 placers. Yuki Hashioka, whose cousin plays on Japan's soccer team at the Tokyo Olympics, just missed the national record with a jump of 8.36 m to win Nationals in June. That put him at #6 among Olympic entrants this year, the same place he also stands in the field on world ranking. NR holder Shotaro Shiroyama has struggled this season, but with a best of 8.40 m he should be right there with Hashioka if he's in form. The women's javelin throw also has a top 8 contender. NR holder Haruka Kitaguchi has only thrown 61.49 m this season, but with a best of 66.00 m a good day would see her break into the single-digit placings.

100 m NR holder Ryota Yamagata has medal chances in the 4x100 m relay, but in the 100 m he's also got a chance of becoming the first Japanese man to make an Olympic final, his 9.95 NR the 8th-fastest time in the field this year. His relay teammate Shuhei Tada beat him at Nationals, but throughout his career when Yamagata has been on he has been on, and it definitely looks like that's where he is right now.

The race walks may be a bigger area of strength these days, but that's not to say that Japan's marathoners aren't up there. Mao Ichiyama has the fastest time in the field this season and has continued to get better and better over the last two years, winning last year's Nagoya Women's Marathon, this year's Osaka International Women's Marathon and May's Olympic test event half marathon. The only mark against her was a weak run in heat at the Olympic Trials two years ago. That definitely counts for something, but while Trials winner Honami Maeda and 2nd-placer Ayuko Suzuki have better records in the heat, both having won Sapporo's Hokkaido Marathon in August, setbacks in the last year knock their chances back behind Ichiyama's.

The same holds true for the men. The closing splits at the Trials made it look like all three Japanese men on the Olympic squad were medal contenders, but things change in two years. 3rd at the Trials, right now former NR holder Suguru Osako represents Japan's best chance of a top 8 finish in the men's marathon. Trials winner Shogo Nakamura scratched from his last two major races, February's Lake Biwa Marathon and the Olympic test event with injury. 2nd placer Yuma Hattori scratched from last December's Fukuoka International Marathon with injury and ran the test event at workout level, so both are question marks. Osako has proven ability to finish 3rd against good competition, so while a medal of any color won't be easy he has the best chance of any of Japan's marathoners female or male of making the top 8, maybe as high as bronze. Having announced today that the Olympic marathon will be his last race, you know he'll be all-in.

Back from a self-described four-year retirement, Hitomi Niiya set national records for 10000 m and half marathon last year. But while that created a lot of optimism about her chances in the Olympic 10000 m, shoes have had an impact on everyone else too. Given the improvements to the world record this season Niiya could run another NR at the Olympics and still get lapped by multiple people. She also doesn't seem to be anywhere near the condition she was in last year, having scratched from key races this season, run poorly in her two attempts at 5000 m, and turned n a workout-level triple at a track meet earlier this month. Taken altogether, a top 8 placing would be a good day for her.

Previous men's 110 m hurdles NR holder Taio Kanai has been running well, but with Izumiya having passed him by he's left as the #2 man on the team. His 13.16 is the 9th-fastest in the world this season among Olympic qualifiers, and if can run at that level or PB then a place in the final looks achievable.

Japan's men's 4x400 m relay team won a surprise silver at this year's World Relays, and with the additional of current #1 Japanese man Julian Walsh to that lineup should be even stronger at the Olympics. But with only the 8th-fastest time in the world this year another medal isn't likely, and a place in the final is probably the best the team can hope for.

Ones to Watch

Ryuji Miura is the most exciting athlete on the Japanese team. Just 19 years old and like Izumiya a student at Juntendo University, Miura exploded onto the scene last July at age 18 when he broke the Olympic qualifying standard in the 3000 m steeplechase and just missed the NR. In October he broke Osako's U20 half marathon NR, still just 18, then got the steeple NR in the spring after his 19th birthday. At Nationals last month he fell on the water jump with two laps to go but still got up to win and break his own NR in 8:15.99. That only puts him at #13 among Olympic entrants, but what's exciting is that Miura has literally never run against real competition before. He looks different from other Japanese athletes, like someone who's going to thrive when he gets in a real race. But he's young enough that ultimately it doesn't really matter how he actually places this time. Paris is only three years away, so he's really got nothing to lose here.

A teammate of marathoner Suzuki, Ririka Hironaka is the only Japanese woman in the 5000 m field to have broken 15 minutes and will be the only one to double in the 5000 and 10000 m. She's only 20, and like Mura she's still going from strength to strength, seems different from the others, and is young enough to be able to take risks in Tokyo. A 5000 m PB might not be enough to get her into the final, but if Niiya is off her game Hironaka could be the top Japanese placer. Either way, she's the brightest talent among the next generation of Japanese women's long distance and this is a starting point for her.

And no preview would be complete with a mention of 10000 m NR holder Akira Aizawa and the catalyst to his success, Tatsuhiko Ito. Ito is the purest guts racer in Japanese men's long distance right now, and since Hakone days Aizawa's biggest successes have come when Ito has been there to hammer back. The front end of the field is a world away, but great things have happened when they've been in it together.

A complete breakdown of entries by event:

Men's 100 m / 4x100 mR
Ryota Yamagata - 9.95
Yuki Koike - 9.98
Shuhei Tada - 10.01
alternate and 4x100 mR - Yoshihide Kiryu - 9.98
4x100 mR - Bruno Dede - 10.15
4x100 mR alternate - Hiroki Yanagida - 10.22

Men's 200 m
Abdul Hakim Sani Brown - 20.08
Shota Iizuka - 20.29
Jun Yamashita - 20.40
alternate - Yuki Koike - 20.24

Men's 400 m
Julian Walshi - 45.13

Women's 1500 m
Nozomi Tanaka - 4:08.39
Ran Urabe - 4:10.52

Men's 5000 m
Yuta Bando - 13:18.49
Hiroki Matsueda - 13:24.29

Women's 5000 m
Ririka Hironaka - 14:59.37
Nozomi Tanaka - 15:00.01
Kaede Hagitani - 15:05.78
alternate - Tomoka Kimura - 15:19.99

Men's 10000 m
Akira Aizawa - 27:18.75
Tatsuhiko Ito - 27:2573

Women's 10000 m
HItomi Niiya - 30:20.44
Ririka Hironaka - 31:11.75
Yuka Ando - 31:18.18

Men's 110 mH
Shunsuke Izumiya - 13.06
Taio Kanai - 13.16
Shunya Takayama - 13.25
alternate - Rachid Muratake - 13.28

Women's 100 mH
Masumi Aoki - 12.87
Asuka Terada - 12.87
Ayako Kimura - 13.11

Men's 400 mH
Kazuki Kurokawa - 48.68
Takatoshi Abe - 48.80
Hiromi Yamauchi - 48.84
alternate - Masaki Toyoda - 48.87

Men's 3000 mSC
Ryuji Miura - 8:15.99
Kosei Yamaguchi - 8:19.96
Ryoma Aoki - 8:20.70

Women's 3000 mSC
Yuno Yamanaka - 9:41.84

Men's High Jump
Naoto Tobe - 2.35 m
Takashi Eto - 2.30 m

Men's Pole Vault
Masaki Ejima - 5.71 m
Seito Yamamoto - 5.70 m

Men's Long Jump
Shotaro Shiroyama - 8.40 m
Yuki Hashioka - 8.36 m
Hibiki Tsuha - 8.23 m

Men's Javelin Throw
Takuto Kominami - 82.52 m

Women's Javelin Throw
Haruka Kitaguchi - 66.00 m

Men's 20 km RW
Toshikazu Yamanishi - 1:17:15
Koki Ikeda - 1:17:25
Eiki Takahashi - 1:18:00
alternate - Yuta Koga - 1:18:42

Women's 20 km RW
Kumiko Okada - 1:27:41
Nanako Fujii - 1:28:58
Kaori Kawazoe - 1:31:10

Men's 50 km RW
Masatora Kawano - 3:36:45
Satoshi Maruo - 3:37:39
Hayato Katsuki - 3:42:34
alternate - Kai Kobayashi - 3:43:31

Men's Marathon
Suguru Osako - 2:05:29
Yuma Hattori - 2:07:27
Shogo Nakamura - 2:08:16
alternate - Shohei Otsuka - 2:07:38

Women's Marathon
Mao Ichiyama - 2:20:29
Honami Maeda - 2:23:30
Ayuko Suzuki - 2:29:02
alternate - Mizuki Matsuda - 2:21:47

Women's 4x100 mR
Mei Kodama - 11.46
Yu Ishikawa - 11.48
Hanae Aoyama - 11.56
Ami Saito - 11.61
Remi Tsuruta - 11.80
alternate - Aiko Iki - 11.59

Men's 4x400 mR
Kentaro Sato - 45.61
Kaito Kawabata - 45.75
Rikuya Ito - 45.85
Aoto Suzuki - 45.94
alternate - Kosuke Ikeda - 46.45

© 2021 Mika Tokairin, all rights reserved

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