Category Archives: Nobuharu Asahara (朝原 宣治)

The 4x100m relay: Where Underdogs Thrive

Track & field is an individual sport. There is some measure of teamwork in the distance events, where packs of runners can stay together throughout the entire race (like Flying Finns of the olden days) or follow a designated pace maker for particular stretches. But in the end, an athlete’s result for a particular event is credited only to the effort of one. The team aspect of the relays sets it aside from the other disciplines. Passing the baton from one sprinter to the other makes for an exciting spectacle. The speed involved makes little room for error, where the slightest mistake in timing and release could spell the difference between triumph and defeat.

Perhaps that is why the relays are traditionally held at the latter parts of an athletics competition. It is a fitting finale to the showcase of speed, strength and endurance that is track & field.

It is in the explosive 4x100m relay where an underrated quartet can overcome a faster set of opponents through slick passing. Unlike its longer counterpart, the 4x400m relay, the underdog squad can overcome glaring differences in aggregate speed at the shorter race. Whereas in the longer relay, the most dominant force in the quarter-mile, the Americans, almost always reign supreme.

2008 Beijing Olympics

My favorite relay race of all is the 2008 Beijing Olympics 4x100m relay, where the indefatigable Nobuharo Asahara anchored the Japanese team to an unprecedented bronze (38.15s).

Japan has always been a consistent qualifier to the 400m relay finals (4th – 2004, 6th – 2000, 6th – 1992, 5th – 1932); it was about time the Japanese won something big on the Olympic athletics stage. This proves that Asians, with the proper combination of fortunate circumstances and great teamwork, can distinguish themselves in the elite sprinting ranks.

And yeah, need I say more about the Usain Bolt-led Jamaican relay world record?

2002 Busan Asian Games

Thailand’s 2002 Busan Asian Games 4x100m victory is another favorite. The smooth-passing of the Thais (38.82s) overcame the advantage of the Japanese team (38.90s) in terms of aggregate speed. It’s important to note that Thailand’s fastest sprinter at that time was Reeanchai “Ultraman” Seeharwong at 10.23s. The other members weren’t as impressive:

The Japanese, in contrast, had near 10-flat sprinters in Asahara (10.02) and Shingo Suetsugo (10.05s in 2002, 10.03s lifetime best). The other two members have faster personal bests than the Thais:

On paper, the Japanese squad was the favorite. However, an underrated Thai team overcame the stark differences in aggregate speed with their flawless baton exchanges.

2004 Athens Olympics

The formidable American quartet of Shawn Crawford (9.88 – 2004), Justin Gatlin (9.85s – 2004), Coby Miller (9.98s – 2002) and Maurice Greene (9.79s – 1999) lost to the British by a hair’s breadth, thanks to the former’s faulty baton passing – a fixture in American relay races. On paper, the Brits were a lot slower than the Americans.

With a generous splattering of Olympic gold medalists and former/current/future century dash record holders in the American lineup, the gold medal was theirs to lose. And they lost it by the infinitesimal of margins, with Lewis-Francis edging out the fast-finishing Greene, 38.07s to 38.08s.

Among the aforesaid underdog feats, the most impressive (Asian bias aside!) in terms of performance, glamor and glitter would have to be the Great Britain’s 2004 upset win. Whereas the 2008 Japanese relay quartet won bronze with both the American and British teams disqualified prior to the final, the 2004 British quartet overcame a loaded U.S. squad composed of 3 Olympic gold medalists and marquee names in sprinting.

A decent enough aggregate speed and slick baton passing is imperative for a world-beating relay team. Although the traditional sprinting powerhouse, the United States, is well-endowed with prolific sprinters, baton passing has been an eternal thorn since American sprinters are a diverse group of athletes, spread among a vast country. As Shawn Crawford said during an interview, practicing baton exchanges becomes a difficult in light of the varying schedules and locales.

A much smaller country like Britain, Japan and Thailand could muster more frequent training sessions. From what I’ve heard, the Thailand team practically lived together as a team. The Japanese team, similarly, are a tightly bonded lot, as exhibited by the emotional farewell they gave to their long-time ace sprinter, Asahara.

The current Philippine national record stands at 40.55s, set during the 2005 Manila Southeast Asian Games where Philippine 100m/200m dash record holder Ralph Soguilon (10.45s), Albert Salcedo, Long Jump record holder Henry Dagmil and decathlete Arnold Villarube won silver. If the Philippines can assemble a formidable array of mid- to low-10 second sprinters and perfect the baton exchange, surely, a sub-40 clocking is a possibility.

Asian Sprinting: Japan’s Olympic Bronze

In the elite world stage, the sprinting events are dominated by Americans, Jamaicans and the occasional European and African athlete. Historically, Asians have lagged behind in these explosive, fast-paced disciplines. The most recent individual Men’s sprinting medal came at the 2003 Paris World Championships, when the fleet-footed Shingo Suetsugo (末續 慎吾) finished 3rd in the 200m dash. 3 years earlier at the Sydney Olympics, Susantika Jayasinghe சுசந்திக ஜெயசிங்க்ஹி got 3rd place in the same event (elevated to silver after Marion Jones was stripped of her gold). Jayasinghe also finished within the top 3 in the 200m Dash in the 2007 Osaka World Championships.

No Asian man has gone below the magical 10-second barrier in the century dash. The Japanese troika of Koji Ito 伊東 浩司 (10.00s), Nobuharo Asahara (朝原 宣治) (10.02s) and Suetsugo (10.03s ) were the closest. The current Asian record holder, the Jamaican-born Qatari, Samuel Francis (9.99s) is an exception because, well, he’s a naturalized Qatari!

In the low hurdles, Dai Tamesue (為末大) won bronze medals in the 2001 and 2005 World Championships. Then, of course, there’s Liu Xiang (刘翔). Liu had won everything in the 110m High Hurdles – Olympics, World Championships and World Indoor Championships.

Suetsugo at the 2003 World Championships:

For an Asian, qualifying to the finals of an Olympic or World Championship sprinting event is an achievement in itself, in light of the puny number of medals won by sprinters from the world’s most populous continent.

With these facts in mind, it’s remarkable how the Japanese Men’s 4x100m relay team (Naoki Tsukahara (塚原 直貴), Suetsugo, Shinji Takahira 高平 慎士 and Asahara) finished 3rd (38.15s) at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Japan has always been a consistent qualifier to the 400m relay finals (4th – 2004, 6th – 2000, 6th – 1992, 5th – 1932); it was about time the Japanese won something big on the Olympic athletics stage. Despite the absence of the American and British quartets, a podium finish at the Olympics is a stellar feat in itself.

I just love how the Japanese celebrated (reminds me of my team’s 3rd place finish back in UAAP 69! We were ecstatic!) It’s reminiscent of the raw emotion found in those sports-oriented Japanese anime (like Hajime no Ippo and Slam Dunk. I love sports anime!). Men were openly crying, unafraid to show their true emotions. This would have to be my favorite moment in the Beijing Olympics, topping even Usain Bolt’s devastating three-event romp.

Japan’s Bronze Medal

In a sense, small victories like these give us Asians hope. If the Japanese can do it, surely (with enough reforms and political will), Filipinos can distinguish themselves at the elite level.

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