It may not have been the competition that Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium had originally been set to host in August 2020, but Japan’s leading athletes got a taste of the big time at the Seiko Golden Grand Prix, a World Athletics Continental Tour Gold meeting, on Sunday (23).
To help minimise risks, no spectators were present and the fields were entirely made up of domestic athletes. But thousands of fans were still able to tune in via TV coverage and the live stream to watch Japan’s leading athletes in action.
They rose to the occasion, too, especially Nozomi Tanaka. The world U20 3000m champion stepped down in distance to the 1500m and front-ran her way to a national record. The 20-year-old had announced her intentions to break the mark ahead of the race, having come within a second of Yuriko Kobayashi’s 14-year-old mark (4:07.86) with a 4:08.68 clocking in Shibetsu last month.
With no pacemakers, Tanaka started conservatively and led the field through the first lap in 66.42. Japanese 800m and 1500m champion Ran Urabe, compatriot Kaede Hagitani and Kenya’s Japan-based Hellen Lobun were the only ones capable of following the early pace.
At 800m, reached in 2:11.91, Urabe moved into second place as Lobun and Hagitani dropped behind. Tanaka continued to wind up the pace, and after hearing the bell ring with 3:02.37 on the clock, she kicked it up another gear and pulled away from Urabe.
Tanaka flew around the final lap in 63 seconds to cross the line in 4:05.27, smashing the national record by two seconds. Urabe finished six seconds in arrears, clocking 4:11.75.
"I thought about all kinds of race plans, but I also knew that if I thought about it too much, I’d get anxious," said Tanaka, whose mother, Chihiro, is a two-time Hokkaido Marathon champion. "So today I decided not to be too conscious of the time and to just run. I’ve been confident with my finish in training, so I just gave everything I had. I realised in the final 100 metres that I was going to break the national record.
"I’m very excited that I finally broke the national record that had been held by Yuriko Kobayashi, who is from my home town," added Tanaka, who is coached by her father, Katsutoshi. "With my performance today I was able to show my appreciation towards to the people who have supported me."
Dean back to his best
Since making the Olympic final in 2012 at the age of 20, Japanese javelin thrower Genki Dean has struggled to reproduce his best form. He set a national U20 record of 78.57m in 2010, a few months after earning world U20 silver, and set a lifetime best of 84.28m in 2012.
But in the past eight years, he has thrown beyond 80 metres on just one occasion. Keen to turn things around ahead of a home Olympics, Dean set up a crowd funding page at the end of last year to fund an extended training stint in Finland and South Africa. After reaching his funding target, Dean made a promise.
“The number of supporters is 84,” he tweeted in December. “And the best way to repay you is to throw 84 metres.”
Today he made good on that pledge. He opened his series with 79.88m – his best throw since 2013 – to take an early lead, but Ryohei Arai applied pressure in the second round with 79.28m. Arai then moved into the lead in the fifth round with 81.02m, but Dean kept his cool and responded in the final round with 84.05m – the best throw by a Japanese man for four years and just 23 centimetres shy of his PB.
"It feels as though I've finally returned to my workplace," said Dean. "During the winter I went to Finland and South Africa and I was able to train without being hampered by injuries, which was a big factor in my performance today.
"When I threw 84.05m, I was relieved and I realised that I haven't been wrong in what I've been doing," he added. "If I can keep this up, then I can aim for 87 or 88 metres and hit the national record (87.60m). I want to finish the season strong without getting hurt."
In the women’s event, national record-holder Haruka Kitaguchi was slightly frustrated to come up short of the 60-metre barrier, but her 59.38m effort was enough to win from Marina Saito (58.64m).
Kiryu edges Cambridge – twice
There was a feeling of déjà vu in the men’s 100m as Yoshihide Kiryu pipped Aska Cambridge by 0.02 – on two separate occasions.
In the heats earlier in the afternoon, Kiryu sped to a 10.09 victory (0.7m/s) with Cambridge running a season’s best of 10.11. The breeze had turned to a slight headwind of -0.2m/s by the time of the final 80 minutes later, but the outcome was essentially the same with Kiryu once again finishing marginally ahead of his 2016 Olympic 4x100m silver medal-winning teammate Cambridge, 10.14 to 10.16.
National record-holder Asuka Terada – who took a break from the sport between 2014 and 2019 to start a family and then play rugby – enjoyed a promising start to her 2020 outdoor campaign, winning the 100m hurdles in 13.03 (0.3m/s), just 0.06 shy of her lifetime best. Masumi Aoki was second in a PB of 13.09.
Taio Kanai, the national indoor record-holder, won the men’s sprint hurdles in a season’s best of 13.45, the second-fastest time of his career. 18-year-old Rashiddo Muratake was second in 13.65, the fastest time in the world this year by an U20 athlete.
In his first competition of the year, Asian Games bronze medallist Takatoshi Abe won the men’s 400m hurdles in 49.31. 2015 world U18 bronze medallist Masaki Toyoda was second in 49.82.
In other sprint events, Rikuya Ito won the men’s 400m in 45.83 while Shota Iizuka took the 200m in 20.74.
Eto wins competitive high jump
Tomohiro Shinno pushed Asian silver medallist Takashi Eto all the way in the men’s high jump in a competition that was eventually decided in a jump-off.
Both men went clear at 2.10m, 2.15m and 2.20m on their first tries. They then needed all three attempts to get over 2.24m and they were joined in doing so by Naoto Tobe. All three men then failed at 2.27m, but Shinno’s and Eto’s scorecards were still equal. The bar remained at 2.27m for one more attempt to break the tie and Eto succeeded, giving him the victory.
Elsewhere, world U20 champion Yuki Hashioka won the long jump by 20 centimetres with 7.96m, while Seito Yamamoto took the pole vault with 5.60m. Reimi Yoshimura, the national U20 record-holder, comfortably won the women’s steeplechase with 9:54.50.
Jon Mulkeen for World Athletics