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The MGC 6 - Inside the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Marathon Trials

Japan's selection process for marathon national teams, with a committee picking runners based on results at three, sometimes four official selection races plus previous international championships, has always been opaque and open to controversy, confusion and other words starting with the letters c and o. The selection for the 2015 Beijing World Championships women's team set off an uproar that led the JAAF to tread more carefully for Rio and London, and with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics looming they're going for a full-on one-shot trials race along the lines of the U.S. Olympic Trials that worked so successfully in Rio.

The U.S. Olympic Trials approach to team selection is clear enough: run an achievable time to get into the Trials, where the first three across the finish line make up the team. That's the same basic concept for Japan's new Marathon Grand Championship trials race, the MGC Race for short, but nothing in Japan is ever so simple, straightforward and clear-cut. The basic standards to qualify for the MGC Race are: between Aug. 1, 2017 and Apr. 30, 2019, on any IAAF-certified world record-eligible course, men must run under 2:08:30 and women under 2:24:00. They can also get in by averaging under 2:11:00 and 2:28:00 respectively in their two fastest record-eligible races within the same window.

Fair enough. But the existing historical selection races and their TV broadcasts are big income generators for the JAAF, so to keep them relevant there are easier standards for MGC Race qualification at all the main domestic races. At the 2017 and 2018 Fukuoka International Marathon and the 2018 and 2019 Tokyo  Marathon and Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon, the first three Japanese men under 2:11:00 qualify. The next three Japanese men in all those races qualify if under 2:10:00. At the 2018 and 2019 Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon the top Japanese man will qualify if under 2:11:00, with the next five also able to qualify if under 2:10:00. At the 2017 and 2018 Hokkaido Marathon, a hot summer race, the top Japanese man qualifies if under 2:15:00, with the next five qualifying if under 2:13:00. Athletes who have already qualified don't count in the Japanese finisher rankings.

On the women's side, at the 2018 and 2019 Osaka International Women's Marathon and Nagoya Women's Marathon, the top three qualify if under 2:28:00 and the next three if under 2:27:00. At the 2017 and 2018 Saitama International Marathon, the top three under 2:29:00 qualify as do the next three if under 2:28:00. At the 2017 and 2018 Hokkaido Marathon, the top Japanese woman qualifies if under 2:32:00 with the next five making the grade if under 2:30:00. For both men and women, making the top eight at the 2017 London World Championships or medalling at the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games will also get you in. Surprisingly, and damningly, maybe, the 2019 Doha World Championships, bound to be run in hot conditions where success might suggest success in the inevitable heat of Tokyo a year later, are not included in the shortcuts, not even for medalists.

That's all relatively easy to follow, but to help fans keep track of where things stand the JAAF has launched a dedicated Marathon Grand Championship Olympic trials website. Along with a general explanation of the process and rules, the site has a section listing MGC Finalists, runners who have already qualified. As of the end of 2017 a total of six, five men and one woman, are in. None of Japan's runners in London made the top eight or the outright time standards, meaning the first athletes to earn the MGC Finalist title were August's Hokkaido Marathon winners Akinobu Murasawa (Nissin Shokuhin), 2:14:48, and Honami Maeda (Tenmaya), 2:28:48. Nobody qualified at any fall overseas marathons or at November's Saitama International Marathon, the next group of qualifiers coming at the Fukuoka International Marathon.

The top three Japanese men in Fukuoka, Suguru Osako (Nike Oregon Project), Daisuke Uekado (Otsuka Seiyaku) and Yoshiki Takenouchi (NTT Nishi Nihon), all cleared 2:11:00 to earn their places. There's an argument to be made that Osako qualified by clearing the 2:08:30 standard and so should not have counted in the Japanese finisher rankings, meaning that Yuki Kawauchi (Saitama Pref. Gov't), 4th Japanese in 2:10:53, should have qualified outright, but in any case it didn't matter as two weeks later Kawauchi ran 2:10:03 in the Hofu Yomiuri Marathon to clear the two-race sub-2:11:00 average and enter the MGC Finalist fold.


The most interesting part of the MGC website, especially from the fan perspective, is the "Wildcard" section. This lists runners who have done one record-eligible marathon within the window and the time they will need to run in the their next one in order to qualify with the two-race average the way Kawauchi did. Updated regularly, this is a great feature that will keep fans coming back to the site, build greater excitement about each individual athlete and race, and help tie it all together with a sense of it really being a series leading toward a main event.

In terms of the main event, or sub-main, anyway, while the U.S. takes a simple first-three-past-the-post approach, the actual MGC Race trials event, scheduled to be held in the fall or winter of 2019, is complicated. The winners of both the men's and women's races will be on the 2020 Tokyo team no question, clear, transparent and fair. From there it gets progressively murkier. Among the 2nd and 3rd place finishers, if one has cleared a tough TBA time standard during the MGC Race qualification window, he or she will make the Tokyo team. If both have cleared the time standard, the one with the faster time under that standard will make the team regardless of whether they were 2nd or 3rd. If neither has cleared the time standard, the 2nd placer will be on the team.

The remaining top 3 finisher at the MGC Race will be in purgatory until mid-March, 2020. If you recall that the TV broadcasts for the six biggest elite marathons, Saitama, Fukuoka, Osaka, Tokyo, Lake Biwa and Nagoya, are major revenue sources for the JAAF, it's easy to see that a three-past-the-post approach at the MGC Race would make the winter 2019-2020 season races irrelevant to 2020 Tokyo Olympics team selection and deal a death blow to their ratings and to the JAAF's cash stream. To account for this, the've put another wildcard in place: the MGC Final Challenge. If anyone runs under another, tougher TBA time standard in one of the above six races during the 2019-2020 season, they will score the 3rd place on the Olympic team. If multiple people clear this standard over the season, the fastest one will pick up the spot. If nobody does, it will go to the other MGC Race top 3 finisher who will have been treading water for months.

There are other provisions for things like alternate selection based on the process above, but, in a very large nutshell, that's about it. It's a big step toward transparency and fairness, if not perfect. With the exception of including August's Hokkaido Marathon for both men and women there's nothing that would serve to identify athletes who can perform well in hot conditions. A big part of the American success in Rio was due to the fact that the 2016 Olympic Trials, held in Los Angeles in conditions that closely replicated those during the actual Olympic marathons, did exactly that. If the MGC Race isn't held in conditions approximating those of Tokyo at the peak of its summer heat and humidity then it's bound to fail. Virtually the only option given the window in which the JAAF plans to hold it would be to emulate the L.A. Trials and hold the MGC Race in Honolulu in the afternoon the day before the 2019 Honolulu Marathon. This won't happen, but there's no question it's the best option.

The MGC Race qualification process is also overly focused on time, with no consideration given to racing skill. You'd think that top ten in a World Marathon Major or IAAF Gold Label race, or top five, top three, whatever, should at least earn an athlete a place in the Olympic trials, and that something like Osako's 3rd-place finish at Boston this year should do the same regardless of whether it's on a record-eligible course. But change comes slowly, in Japan more so than almost anywhere else, and for all its shortcomings the new MGC Race format is a gigantic step forward. Follow the website over the next two years to see what impact it has on the established order and at the summer 2020 main event.

© 2017 Brett Larner, all rights reserved

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