Big in Japan! Leonard Barsoton’s strategy for Tokyo 2020

What you need to know:

  • Winning the senior men’s title at the National Cross Country Championships at Nairobi’s Uhuru Gardens yesterday was the start of Kenyan star’s journey to the Tokyo Olympic Games
  • New Kenya cross country champion talks about his long-term strategy to shine in the marathon at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games after blowing away field at Uhuru Gardens
  • The 23-year-old will again lead the Kenyan charge on March 26 at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships.

At 5pm on Saturday, Stephen Mayaka was joined for a cold Tusker by Takashi Okamura at the Hill Park Hotel in Lower Hill, Nairobi.

After all, the famous beer commercial went: baada ya kazi, kunywa Tusker (after work, enjoy a Tusker). Or something to similar effect.

A well, earned beer, I must say, as the two Japan-based coaches are happy that their “Project Tokyo 2020” is firmly on the rails with their star runner, Leonard Barsoton, having won the blue riband men’s 10-kilometre race at the Lotto National Cross Country Championships held at Nairobi’s Uhuru Gardens on Saturday — Stage One of the project.

It was a morning oozing class as Athletics Kenya selected an impeccable squad to represent the country at the March 26 World Cross Country Championships.

The Kampala championships will be of huge significant as they come virtually on Kenya’s doorstep, and on the home soil of Kenya’s fiercest regional rivals, and noisy neighbours.


Ugandans gloated after their “Cranes” flew to the Africa Cup of Nations finals in Gabon recently, the “Harambee Stars” having failed to shine for the umpteenth time.

Kenyans have now vowed to storm Kololo for the global contest in their bus loads on March 26, sweep all medals on sight and drive back across the border after the “Raid on Kololo.”

When Kololo Golf Course hosted the 2014 Africa Cross Country Championships, Kenya swept all available medals with Barsoton winning the senior men’s gold medal, leading a Kenyan sweep in the 12-kilometre race.

The 23-year-old will again lead the Kenyan charge on March 26 at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships.

But that’s just the beginning of a long journey in which he looks to medal in the marathon at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.

Okamura and Mayaka have crafted this long journey together at their base in Tokyo’s entertainment district of Shinjuku, home to Nissin Foods Company, Barsoton’s employers.

It’s a meticulously planned journey, as Barsoton told me, shortly before driving off to his Iten training base in Elgeyo-Marakwet County after having floored defending world champion Geoffrey Kamworor and silver medallist at the 2015 World Championships in China, Bedan Karoki who, like him, is based in Japan.

“My plan for this year is to win the World Cross Country Championships in Kampala and also the 10,000 metres title on the track at the World Championships in London,” he explained.

“After the Kampala championships, I will start my marathon training while also training for the 10,000 metres on the track.

“I will throw in a half marathon before starting my full marathon proper training next year.

“My aim is to make my marathon debut in December, 2018, in Fukuoka, Japan.”

And that’s just the beginning of his “Tokyo 2020 strategy.”

“In 2019, I will see whether to run an April marathon before doing another marathon in December.

“Then, I will see if my body has responded well for the full marathon, and if not successful, I will go back to the 10,000 metres, but if things go according to plan, then I will fight for a place in Kenya’s team to the Tokyo Olympics marathon race.”

Mayaka and Okamura agree that this plan is achievable.

Kenya’s new national cross country champion Leornard Barsoton (centre) reviews the 10-kilometre National Cross Country Championships final with his coach Takashi Okamura (left) and manager Stephen Mayaka on February 18, 2017 at the Hill Park Hotel in Nairobi. PHOTO | MARTIN MUKANGU |

“We have a long-term plan for 2020 and Nissin company is supporting Barsoton because the 2020 Olympics will be in Tokyo which is our home and Barsoton’s home too,” says Okamura who also has in the Nissin Foods stable Alfred Ng’eno, bronze medallist in the junior race at the 2015 World Cross Country Championships in Guiyang, China.

Okamura has previously handled other top Kenyans at Nissin including Julius Gitahi, Gideon Ngatuny, Job Mogusu, Caleb Mwangangi and Edwin Mokua.

“Our aim is to make sure Japan-based athletes dominate Kenya’s team to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and we are happy with how some of them have performed today at the national cross country championships,” adds Mayaka, a Kenya-born Japanese national who is behind the success of several Kenyan athletes in the Asian nation.


Mayaka is currently an athletics coach at the Obirin University in Machida, on the outskirts of Tokyo, which has been identified as a possible Team Kenya pre-Olympic training campus ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Games.

Wesley Ladema and Amos Kirui joined Barsoton as Japan-based Kenyans who made the team for the Kampala championships on Saturday.

Kirui, who won the steeplechase gold at last year’s World Under-20 Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland, works at Toyota Boshoku in Nagoya while Ladema is employed by Subaru in Gunma Prefecture.

Barsoton, who started running the 1,500m while a pupil at Eisero Primary School in Kabiyet, Nandi County, stepped up to the 5,000 metres in high school at Kimongoch Secondary School, also in Nandi County.

His siblings Asbel and Cheptarus are also accomplished athletes, both specializing in the 5,000m and both also avid cross country runners.

Barsoton will continue juggling between Kamariny, in Elgeyo-Marakwet County, and Shinjuku, Japan, the cocktail of training he needs to inspire his 2020 Olympic dream.

He goes into the national team camp at the Kigari Teachers College in Embu from Wednesday to prepare for the Kampala action after which he will retreat to Shinjuku to start training for the world track and field championships to be held in London from August 4 to 13 at the Olympic Stadium in the Queen Elizabeth Park, Stratford.

Barsoton (278) and world champion Geoffrey Kamworor (273) control the pace for the Kenya Police Service team in the race. PHOTO | MARTIN MUKANGU |

Barsoton’s career has been on the steady rise since he relocated to Japan in 2012, two years after completing his high school.

“I like Japan. I haven’t studied Japanese but I know the basics in the language and can order food and get my way round quite easily,” he says.

The new national cross country championships has had several stabs at the national title, coming close on all occasions.

“In 2014, I was second at the nationals, travelled to Kampala for the Africa Cross Country Championships and won the gold medal,” he recalls.

“In 2015, I concentrated on the track, was selected to Kenya’s team for the All Africa Games in Brazzaville and won silver in the 10,000 metres.

“Last year, I finished third in the national cross country championships and was selected for the Africa championships in Yaounde but I did not travel as I had commitments in road races, especially the World’s Best 10km race in Puerto Rico where I went and finished second.

“In May last year, I went to the Diamond League in Eugene but I wasn’t happy with my performance as I ran 27:31.”

Well, by any standards, 27 minutes and 31 seconds isn’t exactly a disappointing time.

Leornard Barsoton during a past training session. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA |

Barsoton’s disappointment at this time reveals his perfectionist nature, and his drive to excel in anything he does.

“Barsoton is a fighter! I’m happy to see him finally emerge as the national champion today and I’m sure he will do great things for Kenya, especially at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics,” Mayaka adds, as he takes another sip of his Tusker which he enjoys as much as the Kirin and Asahi beers that are most popular in Japan.

“Cheers! Have one on me!,” he lures me.

“No thanks,” I respond, as I throw in a Japanese thank you to Mayaka, Okamura and Barsoton: “Arigato gozaimasu (thank you).

“I’ve got to rush back to the newsroom to write Barsoton’s story for the Sunday Nation,” I painfully, but politely, turn down the offer and rush off to Nation Centre, my trip back to the newsroom delayed by the arriving motorcade of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Despite the delay, I’m happy to learn about the new national cross country champion’s meticulous strategy to shine at the Japan Olympics. The sort of long-term plan our sports managers need to borrow.