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Toyo Cuts Team Captain Saito in Ruthless Pursuit of Hakone Title Defense

translated and edited by Brett Larner

Takashi Saito anchors Toyo University to a course record win at the 2012 Hakone Ekiden.

Earlier this week the sixteen-man entry lists for the Jan. 2nd-3rd 89th running of the ten-stage, 217.9 km Hakone Ekiden were released.  In pursuit of a title defense, Toyo University cut the team's captain, senior Takashi Saito who last year ran the fastest time on the anchor stage, from its roster of ten starters and six alternates.  At a press conference in Tokyo, Toyo head coach Toshiyuki Sakai explained that the team's depth and quality has improved dramatically over the last year to fill the void left by the graduated Ryuji Kashiwabara (Team Fujitsu), saying, "In comparing Saito's fitness to the other athletes he did not measure up."

Toyo is chasing the first fifth-straight Day One win in Hakone history along with a second-straight overall win, an achievement that would make it the undisputed king.  At the 2012 Hakone Ekiden Saito was the fastest athlete in the field on the anchor stage, crossing the goal tape to give Toyo an historic 10:51:36 course record win, eight minutes faster than the previous record.  In November he ran a 10000 m PB of 29:14.57 but was cut from the team despite showing that he is in good shape.  Sakai was firm as he said, "We have a lot of guys who are in better shape than Saito.  Personally speaking I didn't want to cut him, but the member selection process must be fair and impartial."  He told Saito, "You were #17 on the list.  I expect you to fulfill your leadership role as captain of the team."  Saito was crushed by the decision, tears streaming down his face.

The image of Saito crossing the finish line with his right arm raised in victory and giving the #1 sign is central on the promotional posters for the 2013 Hakone Ekiden, making him the public face of Toyo this year.  The captaincy has been a jinx for Toyo seniors, as apart from Kashiwabara no Toyo captain has run Hakone since 2007.  After hearing that he had been cut Saito called Toyo's 2009 captain Keita Kamaishi, now working at Sendai Ikuei H.S. "There is still important work for you to do as captain," Kamaishi told him, urging him to support the starting members.  Saito swore to do his best.

Sakai may appear ruthless, but it's also true that his decision shows how serious and ready to do battle Toyo is.  Led by identical twin juniors Keita and Yuta Shitara, four men on the entry list have sub-29 bests for 10000 m.  "I'm considering two different stages for each of the sixteen members," said Sakai.  He is confident that each of them can lead whichever stage they end up running.  On the critical question of Kashiwabara's successor on the nearly 1 km-climb Fifth Stage he commented confidently, "We can't even think about somebody living up to Kashiwabara's achievements, but as long as our Fifth Stage runner does not break down I think he will make the top three on time along with all our other men on their own stages."

Toyo's sixteen-man lineup for its pursuit of history is set in stone.  "This time we are on our way to the overall win," said coach Sakai.  "Our theme this year has been how to emerge from the Kashiwabara era.  I don't want to come out of this with anyone being able to say that we are weaker now."  With the cold and ruthless leadership necessary to make the tough decisions, he believes he has put together the strongest team he can.


Brett Larner said…
I have to admit this story brings a tear to my eye.

I'll never forget the post-Hakone documentary a few years ago when they showed footage of Toyo's then-captain Kazuki Onishi being cut from the roster. He was scheduled to run the 6th Stage, the first one on the second day, and went out for his pre-dawn warmup. When he got back the coach called him in to his room and told him, "I've decided to replace you with an alternate. I expect you to maintain your leadership today to help the team achieve the win. Do you understand?" Onishi just stood there crying and said, "Yes, sir." Heartbreaking.

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