The Japanese Keirin
All over the world, children ride bikes for fun, adults ride bikes to commute and athletes ride bikes to compete. Only in Japan, do people ride bikes to become millionaires.
Keirin racing in Japan is a betting sport, and the winning’est male in history won more than $26 million. Keirin racing originated in the 1940’s as a means to raise funds for local municipalities, and there now are 48 racing tracks across the country. A Keirin is a track-cycling event approximately two kilometres long, raced by six to nine riders. The first 1.5 kilometres are paced by a derny (a motorized bike), and when this bike pulls off, riders fight aggressively for the position that will get them to the finish line first.
To be a Japanese Keirin racer, you must first attend Keirin school for one year. This initiation involves a rigorous training regime based on grunt labour and tradition, and more than you would see in today’s elite sport schools. While at the school, the men and women have no contact with each other, even sitting on opposite sides of the dining hall. Everyone has uniform haircuts (buzz cuts for men and short hair for women), and makeup, jewellery, cellphones and drinking are banned for the entire year. As well, there is no privacy.
As Internationals, we do only one week of Keirin school, followed by a series of exams. There is a full physical exam, performance tests in the lab, a written exam to make sure we understand the local rules, and a mechanical exam where we disassemble and reassemble a track bike following a very specific order. (Read: Pick up spanner, loosen left rear-wheel nut followed by right rear-wheel nut, and remove the rear wheel. Loosen left front-wheel nut, right front-wheel nut, and remove the front wheel, etc.) There is even a personality exam to ensure we associate with the fans appropriately!
One mystical part of the Keirin is that no one knows exactly how to get invited. It is a combination of results, racing style and personality, but no one knows the exact formula. I was invited alongside three Olympic medalists, and spent six grateful weeks yet not quite sure how I came to be picked as well.
I was slightly torn about the morality of the entire affair. The main reason International riders are brought to Japan is to encourage more fans to come out to the races. Notably, the women’s Keirin was created only five years ago with the sole purpose to encourage young men to come out to the races and replace an aging fan base. However, seeing how hard the Japanese Keirin Association worked to make the betting fair and how much money was reinvested in the communities, and reading in our handbook “The Japanese legal system is based on the assumption that gambling will cause social harm. Therefore, the Law provides various restrictions to minimize this harm,” I believed they take this very seriously. We all have our vices, and to see them doing so much good from gambling was, in the end, heartening. (It is not dissimilar to the casinos in Alberta that fund youth programs.)
Each race is four days long – one inspection day and three race days. On the first day when you arrive at the velodrome, you build
your bike and have it inspected. The initial bike inspection has three stations with a least two to three officials at each one, and they check absolutely everything on the bikes. (Bikes at the Olympics were not inspected this obsessively.) We then register and have our shoes and helmets inspected as well. We check in our cellphones, computers and any other devices that could be used to communicate outside of the dormitory. We are not allowed to leave the dorm until the racing is complete. We get 20 minutes of training on the track each morning, and we shuffle out like horses to enjoy the sunshine and wind on our faces. After training, we spend our days in one large common room with the other women to wait for the race.
In the end, there is an extraordinarily unique atmosphere. These riders race two to three times per month, 12 months a year. There is no periodization, and no Olympics. There is only Keirin. Your salary depends solely on how well you place in each race, and yet when you are not racing, you are forced to spend the rest of your day in a single large dormitory room alongside your competitors. I was touched by how well the women got along. I think the camaraderie was born from surviving Keirin school together, but it was still very impressive.
Before each race, you don’t say “Good luck,” but instead Ganbatte, which means, “Do your best.” After each race, you thank your competitors for racing with you, and the winner of each heat gives their competitors a small gift. My favourite tradition however occurred postrace when the riders line up to collect the bikes and helmets from their teammates. At international races, usually the mechanic does this job (our bikes have no brakes, so in order to slow down faster and clear the track, someone must grab you to bring you to a stop). In Japan, the riders swarm the gate to collect your bike. It is the most wonderful show of sportsmanship.
We were privileged to witness a retirement ceremony while there. A very kind racer was gifted with more than 25 bouquets of flowers and a lovely ceremony attended by many riders. I was told this was one of the bigger displays a rider receives, which is remarkable because this racer wasn’t one of the best, and, in fact, her score was very low. She was being honoured not because of her results, but because of whom she is as a person.
The Japanese Keirin is indeed a fine example of Japan’s culture and tradition. In the aggressive world of Keirin racing, what, in fact, most stuck with me was the kindness manifested.
Japanese Keirin racing is a fine example of Japan’s culture and tradition, and what struck Sullivan the most was the kindness that the sport manifested.
A mechanical exam was part of Keirin school.
Keirin racing in Japan offers a unique experience and atmosphere.