By Scott Carter l University of Florida athletics communication (with permission) l Link
A Tokyo-based reporter and photographer spent two days at UF for a story on Hakim Sani Brown, one of Japan's most promising athletes for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. - If you stopped 10 people today on the sidewalk along University Avenue at the University of Florida and asked them who Hakim Sani Brown is, chances are you would get blank stares rather than a correct answer.
If you did the same thing on a street in Tokyo, someone would likely give you a weird look for even asking.
"He is still an 18-year-old boy,'' Tomoo Ota said. "People respect him so much."
By the summer of 2020 when the Olympic Games come to Tokyo, Sani Brown is expected to be a household name in Japan.
A veteran sports journalist for the national daily newspaper The Yomiuri Shimbun, Ota and a photographer spent two days on UF's campus earlier this month for a story on Sani Brown, a freshman sprinter for the Gators.
The story is part of the newspaper's upcoming series on how Japan has transformed during the reign of Emperor Akihito, who will abdicate his throne in April 2019.
"A lot changed,'' Ota said.
The 83-year-old Akihito is a beloved figure in Japan and his reign is called Heisei (achieving peace). Akihito's looming departure is huge news in Japan. He is the first Emperor to abdicate in 200 years, citing age and concerns over his ability to continue.
On Ota's recent assignment to the U.S., he also stopped at the United Nations in New York to gather information for other stories related to Akihito. Ota has been a sports journalist for three decades and is no stranger to reporting from America.
He was based in New York for several years covering Major League Baseball and other stateside events. He covered the relatively young phenomenon of Japanese-born baseball players coming to America to play, which bloomed with the success of pitcher Hideo Nomo for the Dodgers in 1995 and has continued with stars such as Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, Yu Darvish and newcomer Shohei Ohtani, who recently signed with the Angels and seeks to become the first two-way player in the majors in decades.
How does Sani Brown fit into the picture?
"He is a next generation athlete,'' Ota said. "These guys are previous generation. He is a symbol of next generation."
When Nomo, Ichiro and Matsui came to America, Japanese newspapers and TV stations deployed dozens of reporters and photographers to track their every move. They wrote daily stories and followed their big-league teams across the country to feed the massive appetite of fans back home.
The players existed in a fishbowl and felt tremendous pressure to succeed and prove they belonged in the majors. Many succeeded. Others, such as former Yankees pitcher Hideki Irabu, imploded and failed to live up to expectations.
Still, more than 20 years after Nomo was named National League Rookie of the Year, the phenomenon has proven to have staying power.
While two-way phenom Ohtani has been called the Babe Ruth of Japan, the Japanese players' success before him has smoothed the transition for those who have followed.
Sani Brown, whose mother is from Japan and father is from Ghana, belongs to a young population of biracial Japanese athletes trying to make their mark on an international stage.
Sani Brown remains a relative unknown in the U.S.. He enrolled at UF in August and over the holiday break returned to Tokyo, where on Dec. 19 he was honored by the Japan Association of Athletics Federations for his banner 2017.
Competing at the IAAF World Championships in London last summer, Sani Brown lowered his personal bests in the 100 meters (10.05 seconds) and 200 (20.32) as he builds to star for the home country in the 2020 Olympics.
"I came up with some good results at the world championships, but they are not what I can be satisfied with," he told The Japan Times. "I would like to keep working hard taking advantage of these experiences for next year and the Olympics."
Sani Brown shot to national fame at home in 2015 when he won the 100 and 200 at the World Youth Championships in Cali, Colombia. He broke Usain Bolt's meet record in the 200 to establish himself as one of the world's top up-and-coming sprinters.
Following his visit to Florida, Ota came away with the impression Sani Brown is physically and mentally prepared to handle the track ahead.
"When we talked to Hakim, he doesn't feel the kind of pressure they did,'' Ota said. "The generation has changed. He is so nice a boy. The expectations for him are huge."
This story was written by Scott Carter, a senior editor for the University of Florida's athletic communications. Read more of Carter's pieces here. It was reposted with permission on MileSplit and Flrunners.com.