“The reputation of a thousand years may be determined by the conduct of one hour,” reads a Japanese proverb. Or, in the case of Japan’s 4x100m relay team, by the conduct of just 37.60 seconds. SPIKES finds out how four athletes, none with a personal best quicker than 10 seconds, defeated a host of the world’s fastest sprinters.
When Ryota Yamagata (24), Shota Iizuka (25), Yoshihide Kiryu (21) and Aska Cambridge (23) arrived at Rio 2016, not many of their competitors knew who they were. They left with an Olympic silver medal around their necks, an Asian record of 37.60 in their pockets and a raft of new fans.
Despite its surprise factor, Japan’s Olympic relay success did not come from nowhere. It was the result of years of biomechanical data analysis with meticulous attention paid to baton exchanges.
Since the 2001 World Championships in Edmonton, the Japanese team have employed the underhand (or up-sweep) baton exchange. The front runner receives the baton at waist level with his palm facing down. Unlike with a traditional down-sweep exchange, the up-sweep fits with the natural movements of top speed running and allows the giver to be closer to the receiver at the moment of exchange, ensuring minimum loss of speed.
But there’s another argument that supports the techniquie. “The foremost reason for using the underhand pass is that it is least prone to errors,” explains Shunji Karube, director of sprint events at the Japanese national federation (JAAF).
The stats check out. Since adopting the underhand baton exchange, the Japanese men’s 4x100m relay team has been one of the most consistent teams in the world, featuring and placing in ten out of twelve global finals between 2001 and 2016. In comparison, Jamaica have placed in nine finals since 2001, Trinidad and Tobago in eight, the US in six (and was retrospectively disqualified from two of them), Canada in five and Great Britain in only four. All of these teams use the down-sweep technique.
"Who on earth are these guys?"
But there is a difference between making a final and bringing home a gong. At Beijing 2008 the Japanese men made Olympic history by winning relay bronze – a first for an Asian nation. In Athens 2004 and London 2012 they finished fourth, narrowly missing out on medals.
When Karube, a former 400m sprinter and world indoor medallist, took on his role with JAAF in 2014, he realised that in order challenge for medals, they would need to review their technical approach.
JAAF analysed biomechanical data and discovered it is faster to pass the baton in the middle of the designated changeover zone than at its end, with the exception of the first exchange where the optimum point is in the final third of the changeover zone. Karube also introduced a revised underhand exchange with the front runner’s elbow raised higher than waist level.
His amendments focused on “a beautiful baton exchange”. However the adjustments did not instantly resonate with the team. 2014 and 2015 represent a transition period, while Asian rivals China flourished. They won world championship silver in front of a home crowd at Beijing 2015 setting an AR 38.01. Japan missed out on the final for only the second time in fourteen years.
The pressure was on the team, not only from coach Karube, whose aim for Rio was “to record a sub-38 seconds clocking, take back the Asian record, and win a medal,” but also from a public hungry for heroes ahead of Tokyo 2020.
Like most nations, relay places in Japan are awarded on merit and athletes’ performances at championships. Karube had to introduce his refined baton exchanges without knowing the actual team – a challenge.
Despite its proven benefits in efficiency, Japan are one of the few international 4x100m teams to employ the underhand baton pass
“Relay practice started at the training camp in March [in Okinawa],” recalls Yamagata, who was the leading leg in Rio. Relay candidates were brought together regularly in training camps. Baton exchanges were practiced extensively with all kinds of running orders.
It wasn’t until July, just a few weeks ahead of Rio, that the team was finalised, but it was no issue for the well-drilled team. “Because of these extensive practices,” explains third leg runner Kiryu, “we were able to get away with minimum number of baton pass practices when the four team members as well as the running order was finally determined.”
Just as important as practising those baton exchanges were frequent and honest verbal exchanges between all members of the team.
“We talked to each other all the time,” says Kiryu. “We can confidently talk about all thoughts, including our concerns. One of the secrets behind our success as a relay team highly depended on forming a team with these four members.”
Second leg Iizuka adds: “Granted we are rivals on the track, but since we have a mutual goal of becoming truly world-class sprinters, we help each other in day to day training as well as exchanging ideas.”
The extensive work in the lead-up to Rio showed from the off. In heat 1, China set an AR of 37.82. Japan responded immediately, reclaiming their record in heat 2 with a time of 37.68. Yet coach Karube saw there was still room for improvement and threw a last minute change at his well-oiled machine. Between the heat and the final he moved the position markers for the outgoing runners by seven centimeters.
“The adjustment of the position markers for the start for second and subsequent sprinters was the biggest challenge for the team,” he admits.
His gamble paid off – the team shaved a further 0.08 secs off their record from the heat to take silver in 37.60. It was the highest ever finish for an Asian team in an Olympics sprint relay and a timely confidence boost for the nation that will host the Games in less than four years’ time.
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The impact of the medal resounded not only in Japan, but around the world. Japanese journalist and statistician Ken Nakamura points out that the relay performance was voted Japan’s best moment of Rio 2016 across various platforms – ahead of twelve gold medals the rest of the Japanese Olympic team won.
Ever the perfectionist, Karube already has his eyes set on further improving on the team’s performance.
“The baton pass in the Rio Olympics was ideal, but we do not think it was perfect. Several small improvements are still necessary,” he says.
“For the team to improve further, baton pass work is still necessary, but it is also important to improve the raw speed of individual sprinters. We need sub-10 seconds sprinters.”
With an average age of 23, the team still has bags of potential. Rising talents such as double world U18 champion Abdul Hakim Sani Brown, 17, will play a vital role in cementing the nation’s position at the top end of the world’s relay rankings.
“All four of us can be on the relay team in 2020,” Cambridge, who ran the anchor leg in Rio, says confidently. Yamagata adds: “With the experience from the Rio Olympics under our belt and the home track advantage in four years, I believe we have a chance of winning gold in 2020.”
We wouldn’t bet against them.