Rtl today – national institution: Ekiden: revered Japan’s distance race sends message of peace to world
The long-distance road racing relay sport of ekiden is a national institution in Japan, where New Year’s races attract massive TV audiences and turn unknown athletes into stars overnight.
Today ekiden’s greatest modern coach believes he can also become a world event on the Olympic stage and even contribute to world peace.
Ekiden involves teams of runners covering long distance relay stages of varying lengths, and has been held in Japan for over a century.
The event was inspired by the couriers of the samurai era who carried messages between Tokyo and the former imperial capital Kyoto.
Ekiden is virtually unknown outside of Japan, but Susumu Hara, head coach of the conquering team at Aoyama Gakuin University, believes he may become popular around the world.
“Connection,” he said, “is a word that resonates in all sports around the world.
“A lot of places still experience social conflict, but connecting people like we do to ekiden can play a role in world peace.”
The sport’s flagship race is the Hakone Ekiden, contested by 21 university teams over two days on January 2 and 3 each year.
Races for professional teams exist as well, but it’s the student event that really captures the public’s attention, with millions of viewers on TV and more and more roads along the route.
Each of the team’s 10 runners complete a section of the 135-mile (217-kilometer) round-trip trip between Tokyo and the resort town of Hakone, handing their teammate a colorful scarf at each checkpoint.
– ‘The stuff of dreams’ –
Like the Tour de France by bike, the stages vary in length – some are flat and others involve punitive climbs on mountain roads.
Hakone Ekiden is only open to universities in the greater Tokyo area. But its prestige is such that students from all over Japan choose to study at schools in the capital just so they can participate in the race.
“I used to be on my elementary school baseball team, but then I watched the Hakone Ekiden with my family and wanted to run there too – that’s why I started running. “said Takayuki Iida, captain of Aoyama Gakuin.
“Every time I take part in the race I want to take part in it even more next year. It really is the stuff of dreams.”
Ekiden News reporter Takeshi Nishimoto says some runners have even quit their jobs and are returning to college so they can run again.
He says ekiden’s team nature affects many Japanese people.
“People say the Japanese don’t have individuality, but I think one thing people love about racing is that in a team their personalities stand out,” Nishimoto said. .
“Having the right person in the right position is something that really resonates with the Japanese. “
– ‘God of the mountains’ –
Reports say last year’s race was watched on television by nearly 65 million people – the largest audience since live broadcasts began in 1987.
For runners like Ryuji Kashiwabara, who became the “god of the mountains” after helping Toyo University win the race three times between 2009 and 2012, it can be a life-changing experience.
“People suddenly started talking to me on the train or when I was out for dinner, and people were taking pictures of me when I returned to my hometown,” Kashiwabara said.
“I realized it wasn’t just me thinking about what I had done – everyone was going crazy for it.”
Kashiwabara says the advent of social media has drawn even more attention to today’s athletes, but their fame may be fleeting and few of them become Olympic stars.
Nishimoto says many quit running after achieving their lifelong goal of competing in Hakone Ekiden.
Others struggle to make the transition to individual marathon or long distance track events.
Hara, who coached Aoyama Gakuin to his sixth title in eight years on Monday, would like to see ekiden included in the Olympic program one day.
But he wants to see reforms in Japan first, starting by opening up Hakone Ekiden to universities across the country as well as professional teams.
“First we have to make sure we get it right at home,” he said.
“If we do that, a bigger effort to bring it to the Olympics and make it a world event will naturally follow.”