Friday, August 10, 2012

Gelana's victory continues Olympic medal streak for Japanese-trained marathoners

On the surface, Tiki Gelana's 2:23 Olympic record in the women's marathon Sunday represented another failure by Japanese marathoners, so much so that it prompted an editorial (English translation here courtesy of Brett Larner) blaming the "lazy, self-indulgent training" of Japanese marathoners as the problem. However, what Gelana did was to continue the streak, now at 24 years and 7 Olympics, of at least one Japanese-trained man or woman winning an Olympic medal, as well as a streak of 4 Olympics where one marathon champion trained in Japan. Note that this isn't a matter of a runner simply having a training base in Japan.

The list includes Kenyan Douglas Wakiihuri in 1988 (silver), Japanese Koichi Morishita and Yuki Arimori in 1992 (both won silver), Arimori and Kenyan Eric Wainana in 1996 (both won bronze), Naoko Takahashi and Wainana in 2000 (Takahashi won gold, Wainana improved to silver), 2004 gold medalist Mizuko Noguchi and 2008 gold medalist Samuel Wanjiru. There are three Kenyan men who have won a medal in the Olympic marathon and they have all trained in Japan. Conversely, for all its stupefying success in big city marathons, Kenya has never produced an male Olympic medalist who didn't train in Japan.

The Olympic marathon is stunningly unpredictable. It might be the only discipline in track, if not all of sport, where a world record-holder has medaled once in the last half century and not in the last 30 years for men, while a female world record-holder has won two medals in the last 30 years. For those quibbling at home, I'm counting medals by current and former world record-holders at the time of the Olympics, but not future world record-holders, so Carlos Lopes doesn't count as his record came the year after his victory at the 1984 Olympics.

It is against this backdrop of near-certain failure that Japanese-trained athletes have been so consistent, as loosely as the term might apply to the Olympic marathon, earning 10 out of 45 medals awarded over this stretch. Compare that to 8 medals by Kenyan athletes and 5 by Ethiopian athletes, and it's clear that Japan is doing something right when it comes to the marathon in taking otherwise unremarkable athletes like Wakiihuri, Arimori and Wainana, ones who would never rate a mention as the best of all-time or even an era, and turning them into Olympic medalists.

To the extent that there is a knack for succeeding in a championship marathon that will likely be run in hot weather, which is basically like success at rolling the dice, Japan has cornered the market. I can't personally speak for the degree of involvement Japan had in the success of each of these athletes, though I suspect that, like anything else in the sport, there really is no secret. For the Kenyan athletes, structured training while avoiding over-racing and Kenya's rainy season, which can often wash out roads and make training impossible, are significant. For both Kenyan and Japanese athletes, the single-minded focus on the marathon that is the hallmark of the Japanese system (find another country where the national record in the marathon is 2:06:16, but the 1500 record is just 3:37) has long been paying dividends, alongside training in hot, humid weather.

Japan has extended its streak in producing at least one marathon medalist from each Olympic medalist, but it has the chance to add another medalist this Sunday. It's unlikely that a Japanese man will medal, with the only possible candidate being Arata Fujiwara, whose chances, I think, are bolstered by the fact that both Kenya and Ethiopia seem to have chosen their teams in the most amateurish way possible, based almost entirely on time, on what is not a very fast course. On the other hand, it's just as likely that having six men who have all run faster than 2:05:04 will produce a replica of the Beijing race.

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