Toshikazu Yamanishi in the 20km race walk at the World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 (© Matt Quine)
When he’s got a spare minute, Toshikazu Yamanishi likes to read Agatha Christie novels.
There will be no mystery if the bespectacled world champion adds Olympic gold to his Doha triumph.
The Japanese race walker has been in the vanguard of top race walkers since he won the 2013 world U18 title. But go back a decade, and Japan was race walking’s support cast.
There was Yusuke Suzuki, long before his 20km world record and 50km world title, charging off at the front against stellar fields only to be reeled in when it mattered.
Now, in Olympic year, Suzuki and teammates are ready to take centre stage, not just at the beginning, but also at the middle and the end in their tilt for glory.
Whether anyone will be allowed to see Yamansihi and co triumph on home soil is still a matter of debate. But one way or the other, nothing is going to get in the way of the race walker who turns 25 today (15 February).
“It would be great to have spectators,” Yamanishi said. “There are sometimes big crowds in Japan, sometimes not. Domestic attention differs greatly.
“But in the Olympics, it’s a chance to be seen and interested in by many people in Japan. If spectators are not allowed it will be a shame of course, but whether spectators are permitted or not, what I do, I hope, is my best performance.”
If he performs anywhere near his ‘best’, Yamanishi will stand a great chance of taking gold.
Toshikazu Yamanishi en route to the Japanese 20km race walking title in Kobe (© Getty Images)
Later this week, the 104th Japanese 20km Race Walk Championships will take place in Kobe with a strictly domestic race.
Rewind 12 months and the birthday boy became the first race walker to dip under 1:18:00 four times when he broke the Kobe tape in 1:17:36, denying Eiki Takahashi a sixth straight win. The first four men finished inside 1:20:00, and 55 got under 1:30:00.
Yamanishi, who has led the world 20km race walk rankings for 98 weeks, has a theory why Japan has come to the fore as a race walking nation. Athletes in other disciplines will nod knowingly at his reasons.
“Firstly, we have well-developed coaching systems where detail and attention are important,” he said. “Secondly, there are many rivals. If you are always in tough competition in Japan where nobody gives an inch in all races, you always have to be at your best. To get to that level, training under precise coaching to improve skills and performances is all important.”
As it happens, Yamanishi’s coach, Takayuki Uchida, only meets up with his charge twice a month on average. In between, the race walker sends him training reports that include films of his workouts.
“We meet mostly in training camps, but otherwise it’s about sending each other information and using that to improve,” Yamanishi added.
So far, advice about wearing glasses in training or even during races has been absent.
At the World Athletics Championships Doha 2019, all race walkers drenched themselves from head to foot throughout as they fought the heat and humidity even in the dead of night. It looked as if Yamanishi needed a pair of mini windscreen wipers on his specs, something akin to the eccentric pair worn by rock star Elton John back in the day. The race walker laughed off the idea.
“Actually, it doesn’t bother me,” he said. “And no, I’ve never given contact lenses a thought. Why should I? I don’t think twice about the glasses.”
On the theme of water, Yamanishi was like a duck to same soon after watching his first event.
A friend was race walking, and 15-year-old Yamanishi was curious about this strange event and decided to give it a go. Within three years Yamanishi had clocked 41:53.80 for 10,000m to win the world U18 title in Donetsk.
Toshikazu Yamanishi wins the world U18 title in Donetsk (© Getty Images)
Since then, apart from Doha, he has won the Asian Championships in Nomi City in 2019 where he clocked a personal best of 1:17:15, making him the fourth-fastest man in history for the distance.
Remarkably, it’s still shy of Suzuki’s superlative 1:16:36 world record set on the same course four years earlier.
What all top Japanese race walkers have is outstanding leg speed.
A phalanx at the front in races like Kobe and Nomi is just a blur of bees' wings, and all moving in excellent style.
It’s another testament to coaching methods, where the best can cover a lap of the track in 1:20.
At the Juntendo Meeting at Inzai in November, arch-rival Takahashi did just that in a 10,000m race for 37:25.21 that shattered the world best.
One wondered whether Yamanishi can or has bettered a 1:20 circuit?
“I don’t know, I haven’t tried it for a while, but I’ve done 1:20 in a race,” he said.
The reason why the champion and athletics tracks have been strangers over the past year is down to Covid-19. Rare was the reason that allowed race walkers on a track, even if you’re a man with an Olympic title in sight. Indeed, there were occasions over the past 12 months when Yamanishi was restricted to weights and other indoor exercises. It meant the 2020 bulk of his build-up had to be on the road.
“Stadiums were closed, so we couldn't practice on the track” he explained. “It meant being restricted to road training and mobility training indoors.”
The man from Kyoto understands he’s an Olympic favourite for all that.
Wang Kaihua, Koki Ikeda and Toshikazu Yamanishi in action at the World Race Walking Team Championships Taicang 2018 (© Getty Images)
Apart from teammates Takahashi, 2018 World Race Walking Team Championships winner Koki Ikeda and Yuta Koga, the other race walker in that Inzai burn-up to sprint a 1:20 lap, Yamanishi says there are others waiting to cause an upset.
“Those with good chances? Vasiliy Mizinov was second in Doha. Perseus Karlstorm was third, and I respect and admire Eider Arevalo,” he said.
The latter was world champion in 2017 when he charged through on The Mall in London to break the tape.
Swede Karlstrom somehow weaved his way past the pandemic last year to race and win frequently all over the world. And no one should write off Mizinov, world ranked third, who boasts a PB of 1:18:32.
Even so, Team Yamanishi knows how to properly prepare and triumph.
His winning time in Doha, 1:26:34, might have translated to about two kilometres slower than his best, but it’s crossing the line first that counts.
Japan awaits with bated breath – not only for an Olympic green light, but on its gold medal favourites.
Meanwhile, Yamanishi will train hard, race when he can, and chill out with a good book.
“I spend my spare time reading,” he said. “I especially like mystery and Agatha Christie. It helps me to relax”.
Murder is pushing it too far, but this Orient express intends to make competitors suffer in Sapporo.
Paul Warburton for World Athletics