When Tokyo was announced as the host city of the 2020 Olympic Games, it barely registered on Koki Ikeda’s radar.
Naturally, he was pleased that the Games would be held in his home country, but as a 15-year-old middling high school distance runner, he believed his best chances of being there was as a spectator.
Just five-and-a-half years later, however, he finds himself as a leading contender in the host nation’s strongest discipline in the No.1 sport of the world’s biggest sporting tournament.
It was all quite by accident, too.
His high school coach suggested that adding some race walking work-outs into Ikeda’s training plan would help with his distance running. Ikeda took up his coach’s suggestion and even entered some race walking competitions. Those early results showed great promise, so he devoted more and more time to honing his new skill until he eventually became one of his school’s top race walkers.
“I have surprised myself,” Ikeda says of his progress. “When I started, I didn't even think I'd make it on to the national team.”
By 2017, he had improved his 10,000m time to 40:28.48 and his 20km time to 1:20:48, making him the second-fastest U20 race walker in the world for both distances that year.
He still lacked international experience as he headed into 2018, his first year as a senior athlete, but he finished a respectable – albeit distant – fourth at the highly competitive National 20km Race Walking Championships in Kobe at the start of the year, setting a PB of 1:19:13.
Three weeks later, he lined up at the prestigious Lugano Trophy in Switzerland, his first ever competition outside of Japan. Still a relative unknown, he caught the attention of the international race walking community by winning in 1:21:26.
But despite that performance, he wasn’t considered to be among the medal contenders for the IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships Taicang 2018. Part of a 99-strong field brimming with world and Olympic medallists, it would be the toughest race to date for Ikeda, who turned 20 just three days before the 20km in Taicang.
So low were the expectations of him, even Ikeda himself wasn’t thinking individual medals in Taicang.
“I wanted to do well for the team because we were aiming for the team gold medal,” he says. “I wasn't thinking too much about my individual performance, but I think that helped to keep me relaxed and to compete without pressure.”
He achieved his primary goal of securing the team gold for Japan. But he went one better and won the individual title too, showing an impressive change of pace when striding away from home favourite Wang Kaihua on the final stretch, winning by nine seconds in 1:21:13.
“No one knew me and I didn't expect to win myself; I was just happy to be selected for the national team. Everything went well leading up to Taicang but I didn't think I'd win a big title like that so soon.”
Ikeda was part of a history-making Japanese team in Taicang.
Japan had never won a gold medal in the 47-year history of the championships, but their squad came away from Taicang with four gold medals after winning the individual and team contests in both of the senior men’s events.
Over the past decade, Japan has fast become one of the leading race walking nations in the world but had struggled to live up to expectation at major championships. Their performances in Taicang, however, suggested their fortunes might be changing – just in time for their home Olympics.
Having numerous medal contenders is great for Japan, of course, but for the athletes it means it will become increasingly more difficult to make the national team.
Take the recent Japanese 20km Race Walking Championships, for example. The first six men finished within 1:20 – the benchmark for elite race walkers. The top 10 finishers were all inside the World Championships qualifying standard.
Fortunately for Ikeda, he finished a close second to Eiki Takahashi in a lifetime best of 1:18:01, moving to 21st on the world all-time list and becoming the fifth-fastest Japanese man in history.
Perhaps more significantly, the performance helped elevate Ikeda to the No.1 spot in the IAAF world rankings.
The Asian 20km Race Walking Championships in Nomi City later this month will be another opportunity for Japan’s leading race walkers – Ikeda included – to impress the national selectors ahead of the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019.
“It's going to be really tough to make it on to the team for the Olympic Games and for this year's World Championships in Doha,” says Ikeda. “If I do make the team for Doha, that will help my chances of being selected for the Olympics.”
Road to Tokyo
With the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games still the best part of 17 months away, a lot can happen between now and then.
Ikeda, an economics student at Toyo University, will keep plugging away in the meantime, covering about 120 kilometres per week.
Despite being a relative newcomer to the discipline, Ikeda says he hasn’t tried to mimic any of the other established race walkers.
“My technique isn't inspired by any particular athlete,” he says. “There are so many different builds within race walking, you have to find a style that works for you.”
He doesn’t envisage a change of event any time soon, either.
“At the moment I'm not thinking about moving up to 50km,” he says. “It might happen, but it won't be before the Olympics.”
Indeed, Tokyo – and, more imminently, Doha – remains his primary focus for now. They may not have been realistic targets this time last year, but if Ikeda continues to improve at this rate, he could once again make history and become the first Japanese man to win a medal in the 20km race walk at the World Championships or Olympic Games.
He is starting to believe it, too.
“Up until last year, I thought the 2020 Olympic Games would come too soon and that the 2024 Games would be a more realistic goal,” he says. “But winning in Taicang changed my outlook and now I'm very much focused on the Tokyo Olympics. Not just competing there, but challenging for a medal.”
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF