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Japanese Keirin: from domestic to international

By Nagako Furusawa

Wherever you live, if you look up a dictionary on your desk, you will come up with the word "Judo". Or if you type "Judo" on the keyboard, it will clear the spell-checker on your PC. A traditional Japanese martial art, "Judo" has become an internationally popular sport and has established its status world-widely. On the other hand, "keirin", another typical Japanese sport, has not yet received an international recognition. This was the case at least until the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000.

People who carefully watched the keirin race during the Olympics may have realised some special features about the race, in addition to a usual track race. There are special key words for the race, for example the word "senko" means to ride at the head from the beginning, trying to keep going without being caught. This is one of the strategies for tough riders. On the other hand, "oikomi" means to ride behind in the group at the beginning and to win by narrowing the gap toward the end.

Koichi Nakano
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Koichi Nakano in Sydney
Photo: © AFP

The most famous Japanese keirin rider (now an ex-rider) was Koichi Nakano who was world number one for 10 years. Many people would have seen him during the Olympics without recognising him: He was invited to Sydney and assumed a role of pacer for the races. He contributed a lot to the popularity of keirin in Japan.

In Europe, Mario Cipollini is a big figure and a lot of European people should know the name. However, in Japan, people in the street definitely do not know him. So when the news came to Japan in the spring of 2000 that he (or his nude image) appeared in a sportswear PR poster, they tried to explain who Cipollini was. The article translated from Italian or English to Japanese was, however, a little shocking. It read, "Cipollini, a famous keirin rider poses nude!"

It seems that the translator was not a fan of bicycle sports and in his/her mind, "cyclist" was equal to "keirin rider". I have to admit that this recognition is very common among Japanese people. Many Japanese people tend to associate "cyclists" with "keirin riders". This means that road races are far less popular in Japan. Strangely however, this does not necessarily mean that a lot of Japanese people are glued to the TV watching the races or go to the keirin track every weekend.


The reason is simple. Keirin is in Japan a sport of gambling. This makes this sport unique and at the same time prevents it from being a pure mass sport. The ways of betting are varied: You can choose whether to bet on only the winner, or on the winner and the second place, etc. If you try to guess the winner of the Tour de France for instance, you will work it out just on the rider's latest condition, the team balance and the course profile. But guessing the winner of a keirin is a lot more complicated to the extent that punters have to examine the background of each rider who is participating the race.

If there are several riders who originated from the same province, or who graduated from a riding school in the same year, they will collaborate with each other for wind-protection, etc. Also, the riders' positions at the starting point has to be taken into account. People conclude their bets by carefully reading potential collaboration among riders, and seeing the starting position, as well as analysing the course and riders' specialty. This complication makes them feel most rewarded when they win.

Women and Keirin

There were times when keirin organisers tried to bring female fans to the keirin races, using a famous actress in their TV commercials. In response to this 'new image', many women showed up at races looking forward to seeing Cipollini or Moncassin ā la Japonaise. When the races were over however, those women ended up rushing home. What they saw and heard after the races were enraged men, shouting at riders who lost. Some people who make their living from keirin racing are very serious gamblers.

Women found that it was entirely a masculine sport. Even so, there are still women who cannot get away from keirin and cheer from the backstage. One such woman testifies that she is thrilled when she sees the powerful sprinting and hears the gong signaling that the race is near its end. Though they did not succeed in securing female fans, the organisers of the keirin are trying to create a better image. For instance, part of their profits are used for the development of bar-code technology and recovery of chlorofluorocarbons, or to subsidise riders for the Olympics.

The Future
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Olympic Champion, Marty Nothstein
Photo: © AFP

In the world of business, it often happens that a subsidiary company outgrows the parent company in size or profit. The same thing is happening with keirin. While Japan was looking for the next Koichi Nakano, riders, especially from Western Europe, became very competitive to reverse their positions. Japanese riders who used to be chased by Europeans are now turned into chasers.

It was a big blow for the Japanese that they could not get a medal for the first keirin competition ever held in the Olympic Games. This may be the turning point of this sport in Japan. Instead of deploring the internationalisation of the sport, they had to face reality and welcome the growing competitiveness of foreign riders, since competition makes the keirin more and more spectacular.

Now, the Japanese riders have clearly set their goal: They will chase down the rivals from other countries. They are now challengers and the keirin is no longer their domestic sport. It may be in the not too distant future, that you will find the word "keirin" printed in your dictionary.

The author, Mrs. Nagako Furusawa is a Japanese cycling fan with a major in English literature. Her homepage is a must for Japanese cycling fans: www.eurus.dti.ne.jp/~furusawa/nako.html

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