Japan’s Sprinting Dreams


Few associate sprinting with Japan. However, Japan’s Olympic sprint squad has quietly become a force to be reckoned with, earning silver medals in the 2008 and 2016 men’s 4x100 relay and shattering long-standing stereotypes of Asian sprint inadequacy along the way. What makes Team Japan’s 4x100 success incredible is that Japan’s team, with the exception of Yoshihide Kiryū in 2016, did not have a single runner with a personal 100m best time of under 10 seconds.

Japan’s relay success can be credited to meticulous attention to the minutiae of baton passing. The Japan Association of Athletics Federations (JAAF) crunched through loads of biomechanical data and concluded that it’s faster to transfer the baton in the middle of the passing zone instead of at the zone’s end, with the exception of the first handoff zone, where it was found that the final third of the zone is the optimal point of transfer. Furthermore, the team practiced tirelessly to perfect the upsweep technique, in which the baton carrier pushes the baton upward into the receiver’s downpalm facing palm, allowing the receiver of the baton to maintain a natural running form and lose as little speed as possible. Preserving speed between baton passes is critical; every hundredth of a second can prove decisive in placing. Precious hundredths of a second can be shaved off with precise, targeted changes in technique, and Team Japan specializes in precision. After the 2016 4x100 heat, Shunji Karube, director of sprint events at the JAAF, shifted the position markers of outgoing runners by a mere seven centimeters for the final. Japan ended up clipping a decisive eight hundredths of a second. To put into perspective how great an improvement that is, four hundredths of a second is what separated Japan, silver, from Canada, bronze.

With the 2020 Tokyo games fast approaching, Japan needs Olympic heroes, and the men’s 4x100 relay squad is working tirelessly to claim gold. While Japan’s odds of toppling sprint powerhouse Jamaica aren’t great, they’ve certainly improved with Usain Bolt’s retirement. Furthermore, Asafa Powell is likely to miss the 2020 Olympics, since he’ll be 37 by the time the Olympics hit Tokyo. On the other hand, time is on Japan’s side; the average age of the 2016 4x100 silver medal squad is 25, and Yoshihide Kiryū, the fastest man in Japanese history with a 100m time of 9.98, is only 23. Additionally, Japan is stocked with some incredible young sprinters who are only going to improve with time. Most notable of these talents is sprint prodigy Abdul Hakim Sani Brown, who, at 20 years old, has the potential to be one of the greatest sprinters ever. His accomplishments so far include setting dual records in the 100m and 200m at the IAAF World Championships, clocking the 6th fastest ever 100m in Japanese history at 10.05 seconds, and breaking Usain Bolt’s 12 year old IAAF World Youth 200m with a time of 20.34. His IAAF World Championship records are even more impressive when considering that he was the youngest finalist ever in the competition’s 200m at the age of 16. It’s not certain that Japan’s sprinters will win a 4x100 gold medal in 2020, but we can be sure they will compete with an incredible degree of precision and the hunger to win at home. In any event, the future is bright for Japanese sprinting, and we can safely expect to see them at or near the podium for many Olympics to come.

Image Courtesy of The Japan Times

Image Courtesy of The Japan Times

Mark Pang