Toshikazu Yamanishi wins the Japanese 20km Race Walking Championships (© JAAF)
The sun shone for Toshikazu Yamanishi at the 104th Japanese Championships in Kobe. The world champion lived up to his gold coloured No 1 race number to take the 20km race by the scruff of the neck just after 15km, and ring it dry long before the end.
Yamanishi’s second successive win was even more comfortable than last year’s emphatic victory.
His winning time of 1:17:20 was better by 16 seconds than 2020, and six seconds inside the championship record. It’s also the sixth-fastest performance in history.
After he broke the tape, he was giving an interview before second-place finisher Eiki Takahashi came into view 44 seconds later.
All the same, the latter has finished in the top three since 2014, and won five times before Yamanishi killed the run last year.
A tired Koki Ikeda finished third, and as he sprawled on the tarmac an official still put a lanyard with ‘number three’ around his neck.
In contrast, the winner looked like he had been out for the Sunday papers before taking a bow and strolling off into the sunshine.
Yamanishi celebrated his 25th birthday last Monday as well as 100 straight weeks at the top of world rankings for the 20km race walk.
If proof were needed difficult training conditions over the past year has had little effect on Japanese race walking, this was it.
All three underlined their Olympic selection at the distance, and right from the gun the main places were quickly sorted.
A group of six immediately distanced themselves from a huge field in perfect racing conditions. Indeed, many, including Yamanishi, wore sunglasses in the pleasant 13 degrees.
The only breeze after a mere 6km was the lead group already lapping back markers – and even the lapped weren’t travelling slowly.
By that time, Tomohiro Noda and Hiroto Jusho were feeling the effects of a rash start, and quickly became uncoupled from the express at the front.
At 5km, reached in 19:22, things were heating up on all fronts. A surprise casualty 3km later was Yuta Koga, who has a best of 1:18:42, set last year in Nomi. Unable to keep up the relentless pace, he came off the back, and it was down to three.
At halfway, 38:38, the leading trio was forced to go much wider than desired in order to lap large spread groups who themselves were well under 1:30:00 pace.
How many extra metres walked by the trio is up for debate, but hugging the inside of the one-kilometre course on Rokko Island at the southern end of Kobe was out of the question.
There was even the slightly bizarre sight of lapped race walker Kazuhiro Tateiwa, best 1:23:42, latching on to the leaders for an entire circuit at 14km. Tateiwa was clearly living outside his comfort zone, but even 1000m with this illustrious group was a brave move. He went as quickly as he came after his lap in the limelight, and then slowly after 15km (58:00) Yamanishi put the hammer down.
As he checked his watch with four laps to go, he glanced back to see a gap of about 15m to Ikeda and Takahashi, and by 17km, 15 metres had become 15 seconds, with the gap growing by the stride.
With two laps left, the world champion had all but doubled a lead over his immediate chasers. There was a drop and shake of the arms on the 18th lap, but that was the only hint Yamanishi was feeling the pace.
As he sprinted the home straight, it was clear Yusuke Suzuki’s 1:16:36 world record was safe, but the intriguing prospect of closer competition and fewer human obstacles suggests that six-year-old record is far from safe.
In fact, the last few metres demanded a duck to the right of the penalty lane and into the finish rather than a straight drive to the line.
Behind the places, Satoshi Maruo came home a delighted fourth, followed by Isamu Fujisawa in fifth place.
It wasn’t the biggest surprise when Kumiko Okada had to accept second best to Nanako Fujii in the women’s 20km.
The latter had a breakthrough win in Nomi last year, and was seventh at the World Championships in Doha.
Both have been selected for the Olympics, and only Masumi Fuchise could go with the leading pair once they shook off a small group at 3km.
Even Fuchise drifted shortly after at 5km (22:46) and by half way was more than a minute behind Okada and Fujii.
The former holds the national record set in La Coruna in 2019, 1:27:41, and was given the gold-coloured number worn by last year’s winner. But Fujii, a distant minute plus in that La Coruna race, had other ideas about the result of this one.
Both were locked at 15km, reached in 1:08:30, with Fuchise now an entire straight in arrears before the eventual winner wound up the pace just after the drinks station.
That sip of refreshment was all she needed to open up an immediate gap and stretch it all the way to the end.
The 21-year-old even had the presence of mind to adjust her hair for the cameras and then greeted the distant Okada more than a minute behind, while both had left the course before lone third place Fuchise crossed more than five minutes later.
Paul Warburton for World Athletics
1 Toshikazu Yamanishi 1:17:20
2 Eiki Takahashi 1:18:04
3 Koki Ikeda 1:18:45
4 Satoshi Maruo 1:20:02
5 Isamu Fujisawa 1:20:29
6 Subaru Ishida 1:20:39
7 Tomohiro Noda 1:20:57
8 Hiroto Jusho 1:21:53
1 Nanako Fujii 1:30:45
2 Kumiko Okada 1:31:51
3 Masumi Fuchise 1:36:49
4 Nami Kumagai 1:38:11
5 Haruko Nakagawa 1:38:50
6 Mao Tatsumi 1:39:12
7 Chisa Todokoro 1:39:54
8 Maika Yagi 1:40:23