From Ito To Kiryu: The Allure Of The Japanese Sub-10
Perhaps a high school team having a better top-seven 5K average than the then-NCAA championship-winning team? Or a man running 11 marathons in a year, four of which being 2:10:00 or faster? Or maybe 103 people running under 50 minutes in a single 10-mile race?
Alas, these tremendous accomplishments have become all but commonplace in the distance-running mecca of Japan. So it may come as a surprise that one of the nation's largest news stories ever comes from something that has already been done 358 times to date by U.S. athletes in college and the pro ranks alike since the 1960s -- a sub-10-second 100m:
Ever since his 10.19-second World Youth Best clocking at the ripe age of 16 just five years ago, Yoshihide Kiryu had been in the outskirts of the national spotlight to carry the sprints program of a nation that, up until this week, had yet to see a single athlete surpass the 10-second barrier in the 100m. But the performance was far from an inevitability.
The talk of a Japanese sub-10 was revived in 2013 when, at a meet in late April, Kiryu posted an incredible Japanese junior record of 10.01 in Hiroshima -- a mark that would have decimated his own World Youth Best had he been born just 17 days later (his December birthday robbed him of a year of extra attempts at the mark due to IAAF rules). In 2015, Kiryu came back to run a wind-aided (+3.3) 9.87 at the Texas Relays in March -- some say it was his best performance to date, worth a sub-10 in perfect conditions. But in the four years since then, despite posting some solid marks, the fact remained that Kiryu had not legally bested that fateful 10.01.
Thanks to Japanese sprint pioneer Koji Ito, the national 100m record had stood at 10.00 for nearly 20 years. It was beginning to seem like a curse at this point -- a cruel joke that even the 1998 Bangkok Asia Championship meet timers were in on, as Ito appeared to finally hit his 9.99 there only to have it adjusted to 10.00, his lifetime best, in the official results:
Would Ito's 10.00 stand forever, frozen in time and symbolic of a nation that had yet to join the ranks of the 27 other countries with sub-10 national marks? In Fukui last Saturday, Yoshihide Kiryu made the comeback of a century for Japan with his win at the National University Championships. The win was thrilling enough, but amidst flashbacks from 1998, the roaring Japanese crowd knew not to be fooled by the 9.99 unofficial mark that showed up on the finish clock. Would this mark again be adjusted to yet another near miss?
So at 2:32 in the below video, when the time was rounded down to 9.98, the crowd went wild a final time knowing the curse had been broken:
The clocking, however unspectacular it may seem from a U.S. perspective, took the nation by storm among sprint and distance fans alike, to the point where even Yuki Kawauchi -- the Japanese marathon star I hinted at above who ran 11 marathons in 2013 against all mainsteam advice -- did a celebratory 100m time trial to compare himself to Kiryu on Tuesday.
"I did two time trials. I even wore spikes. I ran them for real and only did 13.9. To be honest, it was pretty shocking," Kawauchi exclaimed. Though arguably impressive for a marathoner with no sprint trianing, his best on that day was a full four seconds behind Kiryu's mark.
Despite his newfound fame on the national scene, Kiryu will have a long way to go to prove himself on the international stage. But in a post-Bolt world where a 9.92 might just be enough to win a global 100m title, at still just 21 years old Kiryu will be hoping to bring some hardware back for Japan in the years to come. That will begin at the shorter 60m indoor distance in 2018, where Kiryu stands a great chance of improving upon his 2016 Indoor Worlds showing and making it into the final in Birmingham.