Shizuoka (Japan) (AFP)
They reveal their tactics before the race, wear armor to protect themselves from attacks, and offer gifts to opponents they beat.
This does not happen in the keirin at the Olympics, inside the brilliant Izu Velodrome, but in the keirin invented by Japan over 70 years ago.
It is preserved thanks to an exclusive and militant training school and laments its filthy image linked to gambling, corruption and violence.
A national obsession in Japan, keirin is also appreciated for its simplicity, with runners lurking behind a pacemaker, before embarking on a three-lap sprint to the finish.
But while the keirin has been on the Olympics track and field program for two decades, Japan’s national version falls far short of the one rolled out every four years in search of gold medals.
“Keirin has this very ambiguous place in Japanese consciousness,” explains Justin McCurry, author of “War on Wheels, Inside the Keirin and Japan’s Cycling”.
Japan’s best keirin riders rarely show up at the Games.
On the national circuit, stars can earn more than $ 1 million a year, with the end-of-season Grand Prix awarding 100 million yen to the winner.
“When you are Japanese and you earn one or two million euros a year, you have no interest in wasting your time on international races which just make them lose money,” said AFP. French coach of Japanese keirin Benoit Vetu.
This is one of the main reasons why Japan has only ever won one Olympic keirin medal, and never a gold medal.
“We are proud of the keirin but at the same time it is a huge challenge for us,” said Japanese cycling journalist Junki Iwasawa.
– Keirin’s “gravelly edge” –
Despite the larger financial rewards, Japanese keirin also has a more gritty edge.
To counter racing issues, each bike is assembled by its rider and checked to ensure that no one leaves with an advantage.
Every bike is the same, not designed by aerodynamicists like the Olympic models, but old steel models, virtually unchanged for 50 years.
“Keirin now goes out of his way to make sure it is a clean sport and it largely is, but he is so deeply connected with this subculture of Japanese society,” said McCurry.
“It’s a culture that Japan doesn’t want the rest of the world to see.”
Racing can be brutal – butts, shoulders and falls are common – but there is also respect.
In the end, the winners offer water to their defeated opponents or offer gifts, such as their tires or gloves.
The values of honesty and self-control are honed at the Keirin Japanese Institute, the official school near Izu, where 70 students are selected each year from nearly 400 applicants and subjected to a grueling training program of 10 months.
There are physical sessions but just as important are the academic courses in tactics, law and mechanics. “It’s an army of cyclists,” explains Vetou.
The rules are strict, but with over 4,000 professional keirin riders in Japan, the outlook for graduates is good.
Yukoh Saito, 26, from Tokyo, went to the United States to be a baseball player. When he failed, he returned to Japan and turned his attention to the keirin.
“Being a professional athlete is my lifelong dream, it’s my main motivation, but financially the keirin is also very good, you can make a million dollars if you are good,” says Saito.
“I can’t go to bars or hang out with my friends, but I can do what I love. And I hope in the future it will be worth it.”
– Cavaliers reveal their tactics –
The financial rewards come from the betting proceeds of mostly elderly retired men, who stare into betting bars while the dilapidated velodromes where the races actually take place remain empty.
Runners even need to reveal their tactics before races to help punters decide who to support.
Since the construction of the first velodrome in 1948, around $ 360 billion has been spent betting on the keirin.
This means that gambling has not only come to define the sport in Japan, but it is seen as a continuation of a darker side that has always existed.
“There used to be race-fixing, organized crime and gangs all very involved in keirin. There was fights and drunken violence,” says McCurry. “Local leaders even wanted the velodromes closed because people thought they had a terrible influence on children.”
There is also a contradiction, that the male-dominated betting industry that makes keirin so lucrative in Japan is also what keeps it from having wider international appeal.
A Japanese medal could be celebrated as a symbol of kinship between the Olympic Games keirin and the keirin of old. But for many, there would be hope that this could be the start of something new.
© 2021 AFP