Sul­li­van Re­port

The Ja­panese Keirin

Pedal Magazine - - Contents - BY MONIQUE SUL­LI­VAN

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.

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