Niiya, Aizawa Break Japan Records in 10,000, Secure Olympic Berths

Yomiuri Shimbun photos
Left: Hitomi Niiya celebrates after winning the women’s 10,000 on Friday night. Right: Akira Aizawa gestures as he crosses the finish line to win the men’s 10,000.

OSAKA — Hitomi Niiya smashed the Japan record in the women’s 10,000 meters that had stood for nearly two decades, and Akira Aizawa followed a short time later by breaking the men’s mark at the Japan championships for long-distance events on Friday night in Osaka.

Niiya ran uncontested for most of the way at Yanmar Stadium as she triumphed in 30 minutes 20.44 seconds to easily eclipse the previous record of 30:48.89 set by Yoko Shibui in 2002 and clinch a place on Japan’s team to next summer’s Tokyo Olympics.

In the men’s 10,000, Aizawa won his first national title in an intense battle that saw the top three finishers all go under the previous national record, breaking the tape in 27:18.75 in the meet also serving as Japan’s Olympic qualifier.

Aizawa’s time cut nearly 11 seconds off the old record of 27:29.69 set by Kota Maruyama in 2015, and cleared the Olympic qualifying standard to secure his ticket to the Tokyo Games.

Niiya’s time propelled her to No. 2 on the world list this season and gives her a confidence boost heading to the Olympics.

“If I don’t break the Japan record, I know I can’t compete against the world,” Niiya said.

Niiya’s split at the halfway point was 15:07, less than two seconds off the winning time in the women’s 5,000 posted earlier by Nozomi Tanaka. From there, she maintained a pace of about 3:03 for each 1,000, and lapped all but one other runner in the field.

The victory was testament to her focus on building strength and improving her stamina this year as she continues a remarkable revival of her career.

Niiya finished fifth in the 10,000 at the 2013 world championships, but retired the following year. She started a new career working in an office, which exposed her for the first time to the way others look at athletes. “You can make money just by running? Must be nice,” others would say with a hint of distain.

She returned to competition two years ago, determined to take on the world. This season, she has been the leader among the women athletes, and feels a responsibility as she strives for the Olympics amid a global pandemic.

“For us athletes to just say we want [the Olympics] to be held is selfish,” Niiya said. “We have to convince the public with our efforts.”

For Aizawa, running into the Japan record book was a breakthrough for one of the nation’s top hopes.

“I’ve been preparing for this race for the past year,” Aizawa said. “It’s really great.”

At 8,000 meters, Aizawa began a duel with rival Tatsuhiko Ito, who last January set a record in the second stage of the Hakone Ekiden, but he got through the tough phase and went on to victory.

Ito finished second in 27:25:73, while Kazuki Tamura, who placed third in 27:28.92, also went under the previous national record.

In the women’s 5,000, Tanaka, who earlier this year set national records in the 1,500 and 3,000, pulled away in the final 250 meters to win in 15:05.65 and earn her first ticket to the Olympics.