Expect the Unexpected: Japan’s Sprinters Take Silver in the 4X100-meter Relays, and Trailblaze a Path to Tokyo 2020

Silver Samurai Japan Team pose
The Japanese men strike a pose – as if pulling out swords for a fight – during the introductions to the 4×100-meter relays finals.

Upstage Usain Bolt? Hard to imagine doing that. But in Japan, the four young men of Japan’s 4×100 team, Ryota Yamagata, Shota Iizuka, Yoshihide Kiryu and Aska Cambridge, did just that.

Very unexpectedly, against such traditionally strong competition as Jamaica, America, Canada and Trinidad and Tobago, Japan sprinted to second place at an Asian record of 37.60 seconds, a fair distance behind champions Jamaica, but ahead of the United States and Canada.

No sprinters from Japan had ever done so well. Famous for long distance runners, particularly with its share of marathon Olympic champions, Japan had only one sprinting exception: a bronze medal finish in the men’s 4×100 relay at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. As Andre De Grasse, who won silver in the 200 meters and bronze in the 100 put it, “Japan probably surprised us a little bit. We didn’t expect to see them up there. But congrats to them as well.”

After all, at the beginning of the track and field competition in Rio, there was very little to indicate that Japan had the talent to medal in any sprint competition, as seen early on in the men’s individual 100 meter heats.

Cambridge Bolt and Brommel
Aska Cambridge and Usain Bolt face off in the final let of the 4×100-meter relays final.

 

In Heat 8, Yamagata came in second with a time of 10.20, qualifying behind South African Akani Simbine. In the semis, Yamagata finished fifth in his heat with a very solid run of 10.05 seconds, but did not qualify for the finals. Iizuka, who did not compete in the 100 meters, failed to qualify in the 200 meters with a time of 20.49 seconds.

In Heat 7 with Usain Bolt, Kiryu placed fourth, his time of 10.23 not good enough to quality for the individual finals. Cambridge qualified with the second fastest time in Heat 4 at 10.13 seconds, behind Canadian star, De Grasse. In the semis, Cambridge did even worse with a run of 10.17 and crashed out of the running for the finals, finishing last in his heat.

Fortunately for Japan, the individual sprints were one thing – the team sprints were another. In the two preliminary relay heats, Japan was not intimidated. In heat 1 of the 4X100 men’s relay, the United States team bested China, which set an Asian record time of 37.82. Japan won the second heat, not only topping the Jamaican team (sans Bolt), but also setting a new Asian record time of 37.68 seconds.

After the heats were completed, the eight teams competing in the men’s 4×100 relay were set. In order of lanes 1 to 8 were Great Britain, Brazil, The US, Jamaica, Japan, China, Canada, and Trinidad and Tobago. But in the finals, most of the teams were able to conserve the energy of their super stars in the heats, while Japan stuck to their four thoroughbreds. The Japanese were in lane 5, next to the Jamaicans, as the lead runners settled into their starting blocks.

Yamagata exploded out of the blocks, which is what you want from your lead runner. He seemed to gain ground vis-a-vis the lead runner for China in lane 6, but exchanges between runners for the Canada and Jamaica seemed to have happened a split second before Japan’s.

Yamagata passed off to Iizuka, who was Japan’s 200-meter runner. The runner of the second leg has to run in the baton exchange lanes twice, which means he runs about 125 meters. You want someone who’s speedy at longer distances, so Yamagata fit the bill. When Iizuka took off at the 100-meter mark, it appeared nearly all teams were tied.

Iizuka passed the baton to Kiryu for the third leg. The third leg is often a make or break leg. Not only does the runner in the third leg have to run 125 meters, he also has to ensure a smooth baton exchange while rounding a curve. Kiryu handled that responsibility to perfection. At the 300-meter point, Jamaica, Japan, China, Canada, as well as Trinidad and Tobago were looking equal, with a slight edge to Jamaica, Japan and Canada. Great Britain and Brazil had fallen significantly off the pace in the inside lanes, while the USA seemed to be slow on the exchange.

The fourth leg, or anchor, is often run by the swiftest on the team. Cambridge was the anchor, and his personal best was 10.1 seconds. Not only did he have the fastest time for Japan in 2016, he was seen as capable of going faster. As we all know, or could expect, Bolt was a runaway freight train and Jamaica was heading for its inevitable golden finish. But Japan’s Cambridge burst out of the exchange, and for a while appeared even to keep pace with Bolt.

silver samurai asian record
The new giants of Japan.

While gold was out of the question, Cambridge’s job was to hold onto silver. Trayvon Bromwell of the American team exploded through the anchor leg and was pushing hard for second, so desperate that he went flying to the track while crossing the finish line.

The citizens of Japan, fortunate to be able to watch this race on a lazy Sunday morning, worked themselves into a frenzy as the race came to a finish, holding their collective breath as their hearts caught up with their eyes.

And then Japan erupted. Cambridge crossed the line in front of Bromwell. Japan had taken silver.

“Nippon! Nippon!” the announcer from NHK shrieked as Cambridge flew past the finish line. The Japanese quartet instantly became the new giants of Japan. We expected the Japanese men’s gymnastics team to do well. We expected the Japanese women’s wrestlers to do well. We did not expect the Japanese men’s sprinters to beat the Americans, the Canadians and push the legendary Jamaicans and Usain Bolt.

But the Silver Samurai did. And heading into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, pre-teens and teenagers all across the islands of Japan will be saying, “maybe, just maybe, that could be me.”