Olympic champions in Osaki
In late February, a small town in southwestern Japan welcomed a delegation from one of the world's most famous and successful Olympic teams. The town of Osaki was bidding to become the training base for the Trinidad and Tobago national team as they prepared for the Tokyo Games. The team had sent officials from its track and field association to examine Osaki's brand new facilities and athlete accommodations. Only the highest quality would do for their athletes--Trinidad and Tobago boasts one of the world's top track and field teams, recently winning gold in the men's 4x100 meter relay in Beijing in 2008.
For Osaki, reeling in the Trinidadian team would be a big boost for the local economy.
The delegation seemed to like what it saw. Tonya Nero, a long-distance runner who hopes to compete in the marathon in 2020, said she was impressed with the cross-country courses.
"I like the course, the ground is really good," she said. "It’s not too soft, it's not too hard, and the grasses are very cushioned." She added she hoped to return to the town next year.
Dexter Voisin, the general secretary of the Trinidad and Tobago track and field association, also had good things to say.
"The facilities are excellent and the people are warm and welcoming. I think this would be a good atmosphere for us at Tokyo 2020."
"A sacred place for track and field"
Osaki is located on the southernmost tip of mainland Japan, in Kagoshima Prefecture. It's about a two-hour flight from Tokyo to Kagoshima Airport, and then an hour-and-a-half drive. It has a population of about 13,000 and seems like any other rural town. But now it's become a hotbed for track and field, with athletes eager to train at the brand new facilities put in place ahead of the Olympics.
When you walk into town, you can see flags all around emblazoned with the town's goal of becoming a "sacred place for track and field." This is part of a project Osaki launched 3 years ago, with the Olympics in mind.
Town officials came up with the project when Kagoshima Prefecture appointed Osaki as the site for a large scale athlete training center, the country's first facility dedicated entirely to athletics. It will cost around 36 million dollars. The officials saw this as an opportunity to transform the town into a track and field hub and boost the local economy.
So far, Osaki has built facilities for all track and field events, including a ground exclusively for shot-putting, which most training centers don't have.
The town's big attraction is the indoor stadium. It has six 150 meter lanes, with a long-jump landing pitch and a pole vault training area. Construction is almost done, with the stadium set to be opened in April.
Osaki has also been developing two cross country courses and facilities for long distance runners. NHK visited the town's one kilometer cross country course and met a relay road race team from a university from western Japan that was training for an upcoming race.
"I can feel that people here are making a huge effort to welcome us and look at things from the athlete's perspective," said the team's coach. He said this was why he chose Osaki for the training camp.
Building the Osaki brand
Koichi Haraguchi was there to check on the team. He has been working for Osaki, where he grew up, since September 2016, helping recruit teams and athletes to use the facilities and build the town's reputation as a track and field center.
"When I saw the opportunity to work for Osaki, I thought it was my duty to come back and help my hometown," he said.
Before working for the town, Haraguchi had a long career as a long distance runner and coach. He says the network he build over the years racing and coaching has helped with his current job.
"I check races schedules, then go there to tell the coaches directly about Osaki," he said.
And his efforts have begun to bear fruit. The number of athletes who use the town's facilities has increased over five fold in the past year.
But Haraguchi says there are many challenges he and the town still have to tackle. He says Osaki's lack of accommodation is preventing it from making the most of the interest athletes have in training there. He says he has had to turn down numerous requests to hold camps simply because there weren't enough hotel rooms. Osaki is now planning to build a lodging facility near the training center on the site of a closed junior high school.
Building adequate facilities and accommodation ahead of 2020 isn't the only concern for Osaki and other host towns. Many are struggling to figure out what to do with the facilities after the Games.
A recent study by Mitsubishi Research Institute found that at least 63 out of 125 host towns that plan to host pre-game camps don't have plans for their facilities after the Olympics end.
"It's necessary to have a long term view to make it more profitable and save as much as possible," says professor Yoshiyuki Mano at Waseda University, an expert on sports policy. He says the cost of the facilities will weigh on the municipalities for a long time after the Games end.
Kenji Nakamura, an Osaki official, says the new training center will be managed by Kagoshima Prefecture but accommodation will be run by the town. He does admit that continuing to find a use for the accommodation will be a challenge in the long term.
"We are now having careful discussions on how to operate it profitably in the long run," he says.
Looking beyond the cost
But Haraguchi, the coach turned Osaki booster, says there are other reasons for investing in the facilities besides making the most of an economic opportunity. He says it will be something to share with the entire region and will inspire the next generation of Osaki residents. He points to the fact that the number of junior high and high school students in Osaki have been joining track and field clubs has been increasing over the past few years.
On the last day of their tour, the athletes from Trinidad and Tobago held a special training session for the people of Osaki. A former Olympic coach taught school children how to warm up properly and the correct technique when running. The children seemed excited to learn from an Olympic coach and were full of energy for the whole session.
"Now I definitely want to join the track and field club when I'm in junior high," said an 11-year-old.
Haraguchi says his job is difficult, but things like this make it completely worth it. He says there's nothing like seeing the faces of joy on the children's faces, and that it gives him hope for the town's future.
"I hope these Games lead to a generation of local children who want to run at their schools," he said. "And maybe down the line, we'll see them at World Championships and even Olympics."