LONDON -- When the baton was handed off to Japan's anchor, Kenji Fujimitsu, in the men's 4x100-meter relay at the World Athletics Championships here on Aug. 12, Japan was going head to head for third place against Jamaica, among others.
Shortly thereafter, however, Jamaican star Usain Bolt, running in his last race before retiring from track and field, twisted his face in pain and slowed down, eventually falling to the ground.
"I could see there was something wrong with Bolt through my peripheral vision, but I just stared straight ahead at the goal and focused on my running," recalled Fujimitsu, who ran across the finish line to clinch the bronze for Japan.
While the U.K. and U.S. teams pulled ahead of Japan, the Japanese team won its first medal following silver at the Rio Olympics.
After Japan clocked in at 38.21 seconds to take sixth place in the preliminary round, the team made some major adjustments. One was to switch in Fujimitsu for anchor in place of Aska Cambridge, who had run poorly in the preliminary round and fumbled with the baton. The change, made only 5 1/2 hours before the final, was characterized by Olympic coach Shunji Karube as a "mini-operation."
In addition, the team made changes to the timing at which the second, third and fourth members began running. The lanes have tape on them indicating the approximate starting areas for runners. But Yoshihide Kiryu expanded his starting area back by about 14 centimeters, and Fujimitsu by about 28 centimeters. To remedy Shuhei Tada's tendency to abruptly slow down when passing the baton, Shota Iizuka told him he was expanding his starting area by the size of around one shoe (about 28 centimeters), to encourage him to run with all his might to the very end.
"We were truly aggressive with the baton, to the point where we were aiming for either first or eighth place," Kiryu explained.
As a result, the kinks in Japan's baton passes, which in the preliminary round had been carried out with too little distance between the runners or too slowly, were smoothed out, and the team improved its time by 0.17 seconds. France and China, whose teams had both been faster than Japan's in the preliminaries, slowed down in the finals, while the Japanese team became faster.
While Bolt's injury did come into play, the Japanese team has cultivated its ability to correct its shortcomings on the spot. Moreover, even though two members who ran in Rio are no longer on the team, it has shown that it can win a medal, bringing them a step closer to becoming regular medal winners, and not just regular finalists.
Tada, for whom this was his first 4x100-meter relay at the world's, smiled and said, "I was able to run my best." Meanwhile, team leader Iizuka showed growing confidence, saying, "That somehow we were able to get a medal shows that we're gaining strength."