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Understanding the Japanese Men's Olympic Team Selection Standings

by Brett Larner

Japan has never been one to have a clear-cut, straightforward Olympic marathon team selection process, the JAAF preferring to put forth a complex, multitiered algebra of seemingly objective criteria that ultimately serve to give it leeway to choose its own favorites for the team.  That's rarely been more true than this time around.  The problems with the Rio selection criteria have been put in the public eye on the women's side thanks to Kayoko Fukushi (Team Wacoal), winner of the second women's selection race, and are a big topic in the media right now.  Women still have one more chance to qualify for the Rio team this Sunday in Nagoya, but for men the candidates are all down following last weekend's Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon.

Essentially, men had four chances to qualify for the three spots on the Rio team.  The only option for absolutely 100% making the team was to be the first Japanese man in the top eight in the marathon at the Beijing World Championships.  Barring that, with no other definitive way to score a place on the Olympic team, running a fast time for a good placing at December's Fukuoka International Marathon, February's Tokyo Marathon or March's Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon would set your name rolling into the JAAF's Rube Goldberg machine.  The JAAF put up a sub-2:06:30 Olympic standard that many people interpreted as meaning you would be on the team if you broke, but as Fukushi, who cleared the women's standard of 2:22:30, brought to the public attention, all it meant was that the JAAF would give you a higher degree of consideration in however they chose to choose the team.

Now that all the men's races are done, a quick review of the results and candidates for the Mar. 17 Olympic team announcement.  Click any race for detailed results.

Beijing World Championships Men's Marathon, Aug. 22
21. Masakazu Fujiwara (Honda) - 2:21:06
40. Kazuhiro Maeda (Kyudenko) - 2:32:49
DNS - Masato Imai (Toyota Kyushu)

Japanese men had to make top eight in Beijing to score a guaranteed spot on the Rio team, a stunningly low bar considering it had been nearly 20 years since that hadn't happened.  Imai was a virtual lock for top eight and a solid medal prospect after running 2:07:39 in Tokyo, but an illness shortly before the World Championships kept him home.  Fujiwara and Maeda ran poorly, Maeda running slower than all three members of the women's team.

Fukuoka International Marathon, Dec. 6
3. Satoru Sasaki (Asahi Kasei) - 2:08:56 - PB
5. Chiharu Takada (JR Higashi Nihon) - 2:10:55

Sasaki ran the kind of race the JAAF has said it will favor in choosing the team, staying with the African leaders all the way to the end and coming home 3rd with a sub-2:09 PB.  Far off the JAAF's mandated 2:06:30 standard that only one Japanese man has ever broken, at the time everyone thought Sasaki's position precarious with faster marks sure to come in Tokyo and Lake Biwa.  As it turned out, he ended up being the fastest of all.

Tokyo Marathon, Feb. 28
8. Yuki Takamiya (Yakult) - 2:10:57 - PB
10. Yuta Shimoda (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 2:11:34 - debut

Nobody foresaw the results in Tokyo, where all five experienced sub-2:10 men and star first-timer Kenta Murayama (Asahi Kasei) faltered.  In their place, the unknown Takamiya ran a superb PB by almost five minutes to come from behind and take the top Japanese position.  19-year-old Shimoda ran well in his debut, leading his coach Susumu Hara to publicly call for the JAAF to bypass their criteria and put Shimoda on the Rio team to help develop him for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon, Mar. 6
2. Hisanori Kitajima (Team Yasukawa Denki) - 2:09:16 - PB
4. Suehiro Ishikawa (Team Honda) - 2:09:25

Kitajima and Ishikawa, both graduates of Toyo University, ran together throughout the race, displeasing the JAAF by ignoring the Africans' fast early pace but working together to run them down late in the race and ultimately coming just seconds short of the win.  Kitajima's time was a 3-minute best, and at age 36 Ishikawa was the oldest-ever Japanese man to break 2:10.  Asahi Kasei teammates Takuya Fukatsu and Fumihiro Maruyama also broke 2:10, Maruyama in his debut.

So who will the JAAF pick?  There is no way whatsoever to be 100% sure.  After the shocker in Tokyo the JAAF indicated it might not send three men to Rio, but with four men running 2:09 in Lake Biwa, three for the first time, that would be a petulant and CAS-worthy decision now.  It's hard to see a scenario in which Sasaki is not put on the team, both for the merits of how he ran and for the fact that Asahi Kasei overlord Takeshi Soh also happens to be one of the old boys in charge at the JAAF.  Kitajima also looks virtually set.  His first two marathons, both in 2015, were 2:12 wins, and despite the slow-by-JAAF-standards time he ran at Lake Biwa it was a three-minute PB, the second-best among the Rio contenders and almost got him the win.

The only possible question appears to be the third man.  Takamiya ran great and, knowing his backstory, probably has headroom for more improvement.  But with a time slower than Fukuoka's 2nd Japanese man not even he expects to see him named to the team.  Ishikawa looks more likely with the third-fastest time among candidates and a 4th-place overall finish.  His record is also impeccable: three of his last five marathons have been 2:09, the others being a 2:10 and a 2:11 both in Berlin.  The only strokes against him: the fact that he was 2nd Japanese, and his age.

The JAAF has already flatly rejected Hara's call for Shimoda's inclusion, executive Katsumi Sakai saying, "We do not take the future into account."  But whatever the merits of Hara's arguments, they are even more true when applied to Maruyama, who debuted at Lake Biwa at age 25 and actually tried to win.  A little more self-control at 30 km and he might have.  If Tokyo-oriented development is the rationale then there is no reason Shimoda should be chosen over Maruyama.

So, the most likely team lineup looks to be Sasaki, 2:08:56, Kitajima, 2:09:16, and Ishikawa, 2:09:25, all graduates of universities along Saitama's Tobu Tojo Line.  But never expect the JAAF to do the expected.  The Rio Olympics men's and women's team lineups will be announced Mar. 17.

© 2016 Brett Larner
all rights reserved


Unknown said…
Great summary, Brett.
Eryn said…
Forecast: no runner, no replacement as all failed the JAAF time target. Then a public uproar, some pressure and a proper line up...

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