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Precise Japanese runners' evolving skills lead to Olympic silver in men's relay

From left, Japanese runners Ryota Yamagata, Aska Cambridge, Yoshihide Kiryu and Shota Iizuka celebrate after winning the silver medal in the men's 4x100 relay final at the Summer Olympic Games, in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 19. 2016. (Mainichi Photo/Masahiro Ogawa)

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Japan's 4x100m relay team of Ryota Yamagata, Shota Iizuka, Yoshihide Kiryu and Aska Cambridge won the Olympic silver medal here on Aug. 19 with a precise performance, surpassing the bronze medal showing at the 2008 Beijing Games.

    The team finished in 37.60 seconds, just behind the Jamaicans, who snared the gold with a time of 37.27. Jamaica's win marked the ninth gold medal for superstar Usain Bolt, who completed a triple-triple -- winning gold in the 100, 200 and 4x100 relay for three consecutive games. Canada ran 37.64 to collect the bronze.

    Cambridge ran for Japan as anchor. When he took the baton, he was lined up with Bolt, who surged into the lead. It was a dreamlike performance for Japan, chasing the world record holders. The Japanese team even managed to edge past the United States (which was eventually disqualified).

    When the Japanese runners confirmed their time on the electronic scoreboard, Cambridge and Kiryu hugged each other in joy. It was Japan's first ever silver medal in the event.

    Japan's athletes, who had remained inferior in terms of individual ability, had focused on perfecting technique in the baton pass, and adopted an upsweep exchange, in which the receiver's palm faces down and the incoming runner swings the baton up into their hand. This enables the receiver to maintain a form close to their natural running position without losing much speed.

    In 2014, a new sporting event, the IAAF World Relays, emerged, giving participants the chance to qualify for the Olympics and world athletics championships. Accordingly, track and field champion Jamaica and European countries have started putting effort into baton training. As a result, Japan had been losing its superiority in baton exchanges.

    Now however, a new path has started to open for Japan. At the Rio Olympic Games, both Cambridge and Yamagata, who ran first, progressed to the semifinals of the men's 100 meters. Also running with the team was Kiryu, who holds the second fastest time for a Japanese athlete, at 10.01 seconds. And Japan's second runner, Iizuka, previously progressed to the 200-meter semifinals at the world championships.

    Since Kiryu ran 10.01 in 2013, interest has heighted in who will be the first Japanese athlete to run the 100 in under 10 seconds. And Japanese athletes have been honing their skills to improve their times. These factors have contributed to Japan's advancement.

    During qualification on Aug. 18 -- with Bolt on the sidelines to preserve his energy -- Japan surpassed Jamaica with a time of 37.68, a new Asian record, and shaved 0.08 seconds off that time in the final.

    "The baton is a factor, but the time of each individual runner has been getting faster. The fact that each of us was able to run with confidence is pretty big," Cambridge said.

    Looking at the fastest Japanese team to hit the track, spectators can now hold dreams that were nonexistent for past relay units.

    And beyond the evolution that the Japanese athletes showed in Rio de Janeiro was Japan's first Olympic 4x100 relay medal since 2008. (By Ryuichi Arai, Mainichi Shimbun)

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