National Champion Saku Chosei H.S. Head Coach Masaru Takamizawa on the Pros and Cons of Further Restricting International Athletes at the High School Level – Brett Larner -Japan Running News
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The "foreign student problem" is always a hot topic in the ekiden world, - Photo: Brett Larner

National Champion Saku Chosei H.S. Head Coach Masaru Takamizawa on the Pros and Cons of Further Restricting International Athletes at the High School Level – Brett Larner -Japan Running News

By GRR 0

The „foreign student problem“ is always a hot topic in the ekiden world, and this season will see big changes to the rules in high school ekidens. There has always been a lot of trial and error when it comes to international students in the ekidens, but what do the coaches on the front lines of competition think about these changes?


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by Dai Yamazaki

We talked to Masaru Takamizawa, head coach of last year’s National High School Boys Ekiden champion Saku Chosei H.S. which ran the fastest time in the race’s 74-year history while using an all-Japanese lineup.

The major rule changes regarding the use of non-Japanese athletes in high school ekidens were announced at the end of last year. Non-Japanese runners first appeared on the scene in high school running in the early 1990s and have been the source of constant debate since then. Restrictions have gradually tightened. In 1995 a rule limiting teams to one non-citizen in their starting lineup was announced. In 2008 non-Japanese athletes were banned from the longest stages, 10 km for boys and 6 km for girls.
Beginning with the 2024 season, the new rule stipulates that „international students will only be allowed on the shortest stage in both boys‘ and girls‘ races.“ At the National High School Ekiden that is 3.0 km for both the boys‘ and girls‘ races. Since the 2008 restriction was put in place non-Japanese athletes have typically run 8 km stages in the boys‘ race and 5 km in the girls‘ race, so by limiting these athletes to an even shorter distance it seems inevitable that their influence on the race’s outcome will be reduced even more.
„The subject of cutting back the distance international students can run has always been on the agenda, so this doesn’t feel like a sudden move,“ says coach Takamizawa. „But the announcement was made right after our team won in a course record with an all-Japanese lineup, so in that sense my honest reaction was, ‚What? Is this the right timing to do something like this?'“ Saku Chosei H.S. has never had a non-Japanese runner but has won the National High School Ekiden three times, culminating in its 2:01:00 CR for the 42.195 km course in 2023.
„Fundamentally, we don’t have international students on our team, and we don’t care if our opponents in ekidens do,“ says Takamizawa. „The only thing we care about is how we should race in order to win the national championship. In considering our strategy, if the other camps have international students then we’ll come up with ways to deal with them, and if they don’t then we’ll make the appropriate changes to how we place our people. So, this rule change does nothing to change the way I think about what we do.“
In an ekiden, an individual runner may lose in head-to-head racing against a strong foreign athlete, but they can still contribute to their team’s overall success. That is part of the excitement of the ekiden as a sport, and it’s part of the pride that Saku Chosei H.S. has in its achievement of three national titles with only Japanese runners. With that in mind, coach Takamizawa analyzed the pros and cons of further restricting international students, who often have „exceptional ability“ compared with Japanese athletes.
„To be realistic, these new rule changes pretty much destroy any chance for the best Japanese athletes to race against strong international competition in ekidens,“ he says. „The JAAF says it wants to ‚improve the basic speed of Japanese runners,‘ but the reality is that in an ekiden there is almost no chance a coach will put one of their best people on the shortest stage. In terms of impact on the team performance, that’s where you have to put your 6th or 7th-best athlete. So, in that sense I feel like this is a big loss for the best Japanese runners. In our case, our top guys like Hiroto Yoshioka (5000 m H.S. NR holder) two years ago and Soma Nagahara (3000 mSC H.S. NR holder) last year had it as a goal to be competitive against the international students on their stage. I think it’s a real shame that that opportunity is being taken away.“
But at the same time, Takamizawa concedes that the rule change may have psychological benefits for people other than the high school super-elite. „It’s pretty fair to say that the number of high schoolers like Yoshioka and Nagahara who think, ‚I want to beat the internationals‘ is pretty small. For the majority, even on the teams that make it to Nationals, international students are like people from above the clouds. In an ekiden most of the people running the same stage as an international student are feeling depressed about themselves right from the go, thinking, ‚There’s no way I can compete no matter what I do.‘ In that sense I think this rule change might have some benefits in terms of preventing a lot of young people from losing motivation. For teams that have international athletes, having other teammates take on the greater responsibility of the longer stages that their internationals used to run could improve their awareness and sense of value to the team.“
When the rule change was first announced, one issue that surfaced on social media and in the regular media was that it may discourage foreign students who just want to work hard and better themselves from coming to Japan. As a student at Yamanashi Gakuin University, coach Takamizawa had international students as teammates and saw their lives from up close. „When I was in college we had international student runners on the teams, and I got to learn about the different culture in their country. I saw them working hard to overcome language barriers and the hardships of leaving their home countries. If a Japanese student were to try to do the same thing and go overseas they’d probably have a pretty hard time. That gave me the chance to personally experience how amazing international students are, and I’m not talking just about their athletic ability.“
But Takamizawa says that in the last few years he has noticed problems. „Having international students is supposed to be about them spending time together with Japanese students in classes and club activities, creating an opportunity for both to learn about different cultures and become better athletes. But their high level as athletes can actually hinder this, and there are some teams that just treat them as a ringer that they can bring into play in the main event. I’ve heard that some teams basically send the international students they bring to Japan off to train with corporate teams for the summer, and pretty well never see them. That might be OK at the pro level where it’s their job, but it’s unhealthy at the high school level which is supposed to be about an education. With that in mind, the issue of international students having too much of an impact on the outcome of a race creates problems on both side of the equation which you consider what an education is supposed to really mean.“
But you could argue that that means that as long as the international students are getting a solid education, being restricted to running 3 km isn’t really a problem in terms of the significance of having them. „If you look at the university and corporate league ekiden circuits, at the Hakone Ekiden teams are only allowed to run one international, and at the New Year Ekiden they’re only allowed to run a 7.8 km stage out of the total 100 km distance. In both cases that’s less than 10% the total distance. If you think about it that away, up to now in high school ekidens the proportion of the total distance that was run by international students was around 20%, so it might be more accurate to say that this change finally brings high school ekiden into alignment with the standard in other categories of the sport.“

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Another element of the question is that having international students around during daily training can be a major stimulus for Japanese athletes. Their presence brings benefits beyond just in the actual races, and, believes coach Takamizawa, „Restricting the distance they can run won’t necessarily reduce their motivation, or the motivation for teams to have them.“ So what impacts will this rule change have on high school ekidens and high school distance running as a whole? Trends among teams with international students are already starting to change since the announcement of the new rules, and Takamizawa believes this year’s National High School Track and Field Championships will be different from in the past.
„If you look at the results from the prefectural track and field championship meets leading up to High School Nationals this season,“ he says, „you can see a lot of international students racing in 800 m and 1500 m, distances that schools haven’t really prioritized before. I think coaches are already thinking in terms of the shorter ekiden stage and starting to focus on developing these athletes in shorter track races.“
As an example of the impact that past rule changes have had, Takamizawa cites the First Stage at the 2008 National High School Ekiden, the first year that non-Japanese students were banned from running the 10.0 km opening leg. „Even though it was where all the best Japanese athletes were placed, the pace on the First Stage that time was incredibly slow. Before that an international student had usually gone out hard and the Japanese would follow and go fast, but without them around that year the Japanese runners went slow and just eyed each other. Saku Chosei’s best runner at that time was Akinobu Murasawa, but head coach Hayashi Morozumi anticipated that it would be slow and put Murasawa on the second-longest leg, Stage Three, instead putting Kenta Chiba on first.
„Murasawa was a frontrunner, so on a slow First Stage he would’ve almost inevitably ended up having to lead the pack,“ says Takamizawa. „Given that fact, coach Morozumi made the decision to set up the roster with him on Third where he could run his own pace freely, and Chiba on First where he could run safely in the pack and hand off without any problems. At the time it was a very unusual move to put your best runner somewhere other than the opening leg, and it sounded like that made a pretty big impression on the other schools.“
If the trend Takamizawa has noticed of international students starting to focus on middle distances this season continues, something similar could happen on the track, especially the 5000 m at the National High School Championships, the biggest track race of the year for high schoolers. „If international students start to focus on middle distance events like the 1500 m in prep for the shorter ekiden stage they have to run, the number of them running 5000 m will decrease, and pretty soon only Japanese runners will be left. If that happens it’s going to become more and more about place and less about time, and we’ll end up with slow races like that opening leg in 2008. Especially since High School Nationals are in the middle of the summer. If it goes that way it’ll be hard for even a really talented Japanese athlete to just solo it the whole way. If it comes down to the very end then it’s less about overall running ability, and people who have a kick have an advantage. I think that will affect the results at the national level.“
Asked whether that will affect collegiate recruiting by the Hakone Ekiden powerhouses, Takamizawa says, „I don’t think there’ll be much impact. Scouts each have their own criteria and evaluate potential recruits across a range of competitions. But at the major competitions like High School Nationals, yes, it might affect the impressions left on the scouts.“
Takamizawa says that there’s also the possibility that there may be an impact on the way athletes entering high school think. „For example, on a team like ours, it’s possible that we might get a new recruit who says, ‚I want to race against international competition, so I want to focus on middle distance.‘ When that happens, it’s pretty hard to find a way to balance that with ekiden racing. In fact, even now some of our athletes who are mostly focused on middle distance have gotten more conscious of international students since the news about this rule change came out.“
Whether they end up being for the better or for the worse, big changes are bound to come due to the new rule. What is likely to be different at the National High School Ekiden itself this year? „The course record on the 3 km Second Stage is 7:55 right now, but once international students run it we should expect it to go to around 7:30,“ Takamizawa says. „In that case, teams with internationals may be able to take control of the race right away if they have somebody good on the First Stage where most of the best Japanese run. The Fifth Stage is also 3 km, so if any team puts an international there then they’ll be racing most teams‘ 7th-strongest of their seven runners, which creates a pretty significant advantage. In that sense, which stage they use their international athlete will be a major strategic decision for the teams that have them.“
It’s possible to make predictions like that, but strategies have changed since the ban on internationals on the First Stage was put in place in 2008. When Saku Chosei put its best runners on the Third or Fourth Stages where they’d have to race international students people thought it was a strange strategy, but it’s not unusual now. „You never really know until you try something,“ smiles Takamizawa. „And that’s part of the fun. Ultimately what’s important is how you approach competing within the rules you have within the sport, so the outcome might turn out to be something totally different. Maybe the level of middle distance racing in Japan will suddenly shoot up the way the JAAF is hoping. Once we do it this way a few times we’ll be able to see what the new developments are.“
Will restricting non-Japanese athletes to the shortest distance shake up the power balance in the high school ekiden world? Fans will be waiting to see what happens at the National High School Ekiden this December.
source article:
translated and edited by Brett Larner
Brett Larner – Japan Running News

author: GRR