Skip to main content

JAAF Announces Move to Single-Race Olympic Trials Selection for Tokyo 2020 Olympic Marathon Teams

http://www.hochi.co.jp/sports/etc/20170330-OHT1T50055.html

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.

Comments

CK said…
Wonder whether JAAF will include any wild-card entries to the main selection race for established but recovering from long-term injury performers, or even elite newcomers? Presumably that has potential to open a can of worms about transparency and who can obtain such a wildcard but can't help thinking about 1984 Olympic marathon in Los Angeles when (if memory serves) only 1 of the 3 marathon medalists Lopes, Treacy and Spedding (all established track/country specialists) had completed a marathon before 1984, and when they stood on the Los Angeles start line with a grand total of only 3 completed marathons between them!
Anonymous said…
One of the major problems of the Olympics as a whole is the politicization: The event site, the selections to the national teams, etc., is all politics.

First, the site of the Olympics should be conducive to health and good performance (not Tokyo in the summer).

Second, there should be hard qualifying times that eliminate "Olympic Tourism." For example, in the men's marathon, about 2:10:00. If you have run sub 2:10 in the last 24 months, you should run the Olympic Marathon, and it doesn't matter if there are 100 Kenyans and 20 Japanese and 0 Chinese in the race.

Third, take away all national uniforms, national flags, etc. This creates the atmosphere of "my country is better than yours because we've won more medals." Let the athletes where what they want to wear, no flags, no national anthems. This is what Pierre DeCoubertin wanted when he created the modern Olympics in the late 1800's.

One of the great ironies of the Sydney Olympic marathon was that neither the current World Record holder (Khannouchi) and the first man under 3:00/km for the marathon (DaCosta) were given a chance to run the Olympic Marathon. This just bastardized the race.

Most-Read This Week

How it Happened

Ancient History I went to Wesleyan University, where the legend of four-time Boston Marathon champ and Wes alum Bill Rodgers hung heavy over the cross-country team. Inspired by Koichi Morishita and Young-Cho Hwang’s duel at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics I ran my first marathon in 1993, qualifying for Boston ’94 where Bill was kind enough to sign a star-struck 20-year-old me’s bib number at the expo.

Three years later I moved to Japan for grad school, and through a long string of coincidences I came across a teenaged kid named Yuki Kawauchi down at my neighborhood track. I never imagined he’d become what he is, but right from the start there was just something different about him. After his 2:08:37 breakthrough at the 2011 Tokyo Marathon he called me up and asked me to help him get into races abroad. He’d finished 3rd on the brutal downhill Sixth Stage at the Hakone Ekiden, and given how he’d run the hills in the last 6 km at Tokyo ’11 I thought he’d do well at Boston or New York. “If M…

The Kawauchi Counter

Yuki Kawauchi's 2018 race results: Jan. 1: Marshfield New Year's Day Marathon, U.S.A.: 2:18:59 - 1st - CR
Jan. 14: Okukuma Road Race Half Marathon, Kumamoto - 1:03:28 - 7th
Jan. 21: Yashio Isshu Ekiden, Saitama: 1:01:03 - 1st - ran entire 20.0 km ekiden solo and beat all 103 teams of 6 runners each
Jan. 28: Okumusashi Ekiden First Stage (9.9 km), Saitama - 29:41 - 6th
Feb. 4: Saitama Ekiden Third Stage (12.1 km), Saitama - 36:54 - 4th
Feb. 11: Izumo Kunibiki Half Marathon, Shimane - cancelled due to heavy snow
Feb. 18: Kitakyushu Marathon, Fukuoka - 2:11:46 - 1st - CR
Feb. 25: Fukaya City Half Marathon, Saitama - 1:04:26 - 1st
Mar. 4: Kanaguri Hai Tamana Half Marathon, Kumamoto - 1:04:49 - 12th
Mar. 11: Yoshinogawa Riverside Half Marathon, Tokushima - 1:05:50 - 1st - CR
Mar. 18: Wan Jin Shi Marathon, Taiwan - 2:14:12 - 1st
Mar. 24: Heisei Kokusai University Time Trials, Saitama
              5000 m Heat 4: 14:53.95 - 1st
              5000 m Heat 6: 14:36.58 - 2nd
           …

“The Miracle in Fukuoka” - Real Talk From Yuki Kawauchi on “Taking on the World” (part 1)

http://sports.yahoo.co.jp/column/detail/201701120002-spnavi

translated by Brett Larner

Ahead of his nomination to the London World Championships Marathon team, Sportsnavi published a three-part series of writings by Yuki Kawauchi on what it took for him to make the team, his hopes for London, and his views on the future of Japanese marathoning.  With his place on the London team announced on Mar. 17, JRN will publish an English translation of the complete series over the next three days. See Sportsnavi's original version linked above for more photos. Click here for part two, "Bringing All My Experience Into Play in London," or here for part three, "The Lessons of the Past Are Not 'Outdated.'"


The Fukuoka International Marathon was held on Dec. 4 last year. Yuki Kawauchi (Saitama Pref. Gov’t) took part despite nursing injuries he had sustained in training. Falling rain contributed to less than ideal conditions during the race, but from the very early stages…