When in Doubt, More System – The Foreigners magazine In tokyo
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When in Doubt, More System

Written by on November 2, 2021

USATF’s announcement last week of its selection policy for its marathon teams at next summer’s Oregon World Championships motivates me to tackle Japan’s selection policy. It was initially announced in late August with some additions and changes since then, but given the amount of info it entails it’s been hard to find the time or energy to write something about it.

Say what you will about USATF’s mostly after the fact timing on announcing its system, but it’s simple and straightforward, and prioritizes proven ability to place in high-level races over fast times. Top priority goes to top 10 in last summer’s Olympics. Next priority is top 10 in the three U.S. Majors, preference given to higher placing with time serving as a tie-breaker. The overseas Majors aren’t included, but none of them had Americans in the top 10 anyway, so while anyone who might have planned to run, say, Valencia is getting deprioritized, given the timing of the annoucement it’s probably not worth reading too much into it. If that’s not enough to fill the three-runner teams then there are some criteria to find the needed filler using performances at other races in the qualifying window.

It all fits in one 4-page PDF, with the actual selection criteria taking up six paragraphs that can be summarized in one. The JAAF’s selection criteria are in a 2-page PDF, but to understand it you need to wade through five other graphic and data-packed PDFs and JAAF site pages outlining the simultaneously announced new Japan Marathon Championship series.

The JMC is an attempt to build on the Marathon Grand Championship, the multi-year series used to choose the teams for the Tokyo Olympics. Based solely on results at the Olympics the MGC was a failure, the two men and two women who made the team at the Sept., 2019 MGC Race trials event all crapping out and the only ones to run decently, Suguru Osako and Mao Ichiyama, being the people who ran national records after the MGC Race to pick up their spots. But the postponement of the Olympics makes that a bit of an unfair judgment as the system wasn’t designed to pick a team two years in advance. Whatever failure there was came in coaches’ inability to not drive their athletes into the ground just like every other Olympics. It’s not a coincidence that the best-performing marathoner, Osako at 6th, trained outside Japan with a non-Japanese coach.

Where the MGC series did succeed was in creating an overall framework for all the pre-existing races historically used for team selection, motivating athletes and building a buzz among fans that got them more excited about the individual races and super excited for the trials race. Just like JRN said it would to every JAAF official and corporate league coach we suggested the system to in the years before the JAAF ran with the idea. In that respect it was a major success for everyone except in part the athletes, who didn’t get any prize money or other revenue sharing from the massively popular MGC live broadcast.

So it was a good system in a lot of regards, something the JAAF would want to apply to future national team selections. And if an intricate system is a good thing then what’s better? More system, of course. Enter the Japan Marathon Championship series.

The JMC system relies heavily on World Athletics’ World Rankings as a model along with elements of the Abbott World Marathon Majors scoring system and the MGC series. Series I, on which Oregon qualification will be based, started retroactively on Dec. 1, 2020 and runs until Mar. 31, 2022, divided into two stages with the first going until Oct. 31, 2021 and the second starting today, Nov. 1, 2021. Standings in Series I are based on a scoring algorithm that incorporates an athlete’s two highest-scoring performances during the Series I window, of which at least one must be in one of a designated list of domestic races, and only one of which can be in a race outside Japan. People who ran the marathon at the Tokyo Olympics get some priority by way of a pre-set score.

So far that’s not really that different from the USATF system, but let’s get into the details of the algorithm a bit more. Scoring for an athlete’s performance is modeled after the World Rankings, with the primary factor being the points earned for a given time on the World Athletics Scoring Tables. An athlete earns additional points based on their placing, but that’s where it starts to get complicated. In domestic races athletes earn points based on their finish order among Japanese finishers. In overseas races they earn points based on overall finish position. Domestic races are divided into three categories, G1, G2 and G3, with higher points for lower category number. Overseas races are divided into two categories, Platinum/Platinum Elite and Gold/Elite, with Platinum scoring higher. Performances at the Olympics or World Championships get a base score of 1200 and higher scores for placing, with those at next year’s Asian Championships getting an 1100-point base and scored on place at the same level as at Platinum/Platinum Elite races outside Japan. In every case men score more placing points than women, something the JAAF justifies based on the larger number of male athletes.

In terms of how that would play out in actuality, take a look at national record holder Kengo Suzuki‘s result at this fall’s Chicago Marathon. Suzuki ran 2:08:50 for 6th and top Japanese. His time earns him a base score of 1182 and his 6th-place position an extra 50 points for a total of 1232. If the Tokyo Marathon had gone ahead and he’d run the same time and position there he’d have earned 140 points for being top Japanese for a total of 1322. In that sense there’s a pretty powerful disincentive to race overseas and a strong one to stay home and run on familiar ground against other Japanese, not that that approach worked in their favor at the Tokyo Olympics. But considering the level of the JAAF’s financial interests in the big domestic races and their TV broadcasts, it’s understandable that they’d want to do everything they can to raise barriers to racing elsewhere regardless of what that might spell for the bigger picture.

For men, the Series I domestic G1 races are December’s Fukuoka International Marathon, February’s Beppu-Oita Marathon and Osaka Marathon, and March’s Tokyo Marathon. December’s Hofu Marathon is a late addition as a G2 category race. For women the G1 circuit is January’s Osaka International Women’s Marathon, the Tokyo Marathon, and March’s Nagoya Women’s Marathon. The Osaka Marathon is included as a G2 category race for women. Two things notable there are that the Tokyo Marathon is being given equal weight for women and men for the first time, probably a reflection of the demise of the Saitama International Women’s Marathon, and that the Platinum-seeking Osaka Marathon, which is taking over the position of the late great men-only Lake Biwa Marathon, is also stepping in as a women’s race. It’s hard to see how the Osaka International Women’s Marathon four weeks earlier can possibly survive.

The athlete with the highest total score for their two highest-scoring marathon performances in Series I will be named the national champion. Moving forward, the second half of Series I will also count as the first half of Series II. the second half of Series II will also be the first half of Series III and so on for as long as they keep this up. That looks like it’ll be at least until the 2024 Paris Olympics edition of the MGC.

With all of that in mind, let’s look at the Oregon selection standards. The Series I champion will be named to the Oregon team. If the athlete declines, the next athlete in the Series I standings will be offered their spot. For the other two spots, the two fastest Japanese athletes in each of the G1 category Series I races who clear 2:07:35 for men or 2:23:18 for women will be evaluated by the selection committee based on their time and overall placing in the race, how they ran during the race, how far behind the winner they were, what the weather was like, and other factors. If the Series I winner is one of the two athletes under evaluation for a given race, the 3rd Japanese finisher will instead be considered if under the above time standards. If all of that’s not enough to fill the team, the remaining spot will be offered to the top two Japanese finishers in each of the G1 Series I races in order of standing in the Series I results.

And there you have it, in only nine paragraphs. A lot of detail in the service of objectivity. But too much detail is also a kind of obfuscation, and at the heart of it is the selection committee evaluating and choosing two of the three teammates just like always. Like I said, this system certainly ups the incentive for people not to race overseas between now and Paris, but will it produce better teams and results? Time trialing at home is one thing, but when you can’t translate that into results at a home soil Olympics where you have every advantage possible how are you going to do it in Europe, North America or anywhere else? It seems like the time between national team selection and the international event, and the process for putting alternates into play, are areas that could use some improvement too. But it’s always fun to put together a big Rube Goldberg machine and then watch it tick along. Let’s see where this one goes.

© 2021 Brett Larner, all rights reserved

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