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The Secret of Their Success

December 7, 1998

Junko Asari (left) breaks the tape at the 1998 Tokyo International Womens's Marathon, held September 15. (Jiji Press)

In the world of track and field, perhaps the only sport in which Japanese rank alongside their rivals in other countries is the women's marathon. Following in the footsteps of such medal-winners as Yuko Arimori and Hiromi Suzuki, younger runners are making the headlines one after the other. Far from running out of breath, the Japanese women's marathon squad seems to be gaining stamina year by year.

Regular Medals Since 1991
Sachiko Yamashita started the medal rush by winning the silver medal at the 1991 World Championships held in Tokyo, becoming the first Japanese female to take a medal in 63 years--after Kinue Hitomi won the silver in the women's 800 meters at the Amsterdam Olympics way back in 1928--and only the second in history. Since then, the medals have kept flowing: Arimori's silver at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, Junko Asari's gold and Tomoe Abe's bronze at the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart, Arimori's bronze at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, and Suzuki's gold at the 1997 World Championships.

Developing a World-Class Team
The drive to create a strong Japanese distance-running squad began in the mid-1980s, with success at the 1991 Tokyo meet as a major goal. Women runners on college and corporate teams took on extremely gruelling training regimens in their push for excellence. The runners enjoyed backing from their companies and schools, as well as the support of talented coaches; but more than anything else, it was their individual drive that brought them to their high level of conditioning.

This tough training remains a part of the Japanese women's program to this day. Masako Chiba, who took the bronze medal in the women's 10,000 meters at the 1997 World Championships, Naoko Takahashi, who set a new Japanese record in the Nagoya International Women's Marathon in March 1998, and Harumi Koyama, who recently broke her own Japanese record for the 5,000 meters, continue to practice in ways that would amaze their competitors in other countries--sometimes running as much as 200 kilometers (125 miles) a week. Recent years have seen scientific methods added to raw roadwork in training programs around the world, and Japan has been no different; but it was this foundation of hard training, many say, that allowed the Japanese women advance so far so fast. And in such numbers--the Japanese team is so deep, says one official at the Japan Amateur Athletics Federation, "Getting a spot on the team going to Sydney will probably be more difficult than winning a medal there."

Different Attitude of Japanese and Foreign Runners
Another factor behind the outstanding performances of Japanese runners at the Olympics and World Championships is their approach to racing, which differs from that of foreign athletes. The ultimate goal for most Japanese runners is the Olympics and the World Championships, whereas foreign runners tend to focus on races that offer lucrative financial prizes, such as the Boston and Rotterdam marathons.

In the Olympics and World Championships, athletes usually must run in the heat of summer; many foreign runners are not prepared to wreck themselves just for the honor of winning. Kenyan Tegla Loroupe, who won the Rotterdam Marathon in April 1998 in a record-breaking 2:20:47, did not take part in the marathon in the 1997 World Championships, instead competing in the 10,000 meters. So as well as their own strengths, Japanese women are helped by the fact that the top runners of other countries often stay out of the marathon at the Olympics and World Championships.

Nevertheless, Japan can be proud of its women marathon runners and look forward to more good performances at the 1999 World Championships, to be held in Seville, Spain, and at the Sydney Olympics the following year. "Getting a ticket is only the first step," say Japan's runners in unison. "The final goal is winning a medal." Some of the toughest training in the world and this keenness to come home with a medal--these are two keys to the strength of Japan's marathon queens.

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Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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