Decontamination efforts were kicking into full gear ahead of the new academic year at the Kanayagawa campus of Fukushima University.
The bulldozer was hard at work on the grounds before school started in early April, more than a year after the accident was triggered at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant by the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami.
After decontamination, the amount of radiation released per hour at the soccer grounds stood at 0.15 microsievert, while it was 0.56 microsievert on the road in front of the dormitory. Seventeen students measured radiation levels for a week, and estimated that cumulative radiation for a year would total 0.782 to 2.659 millisieverts. According to a report, people are exposed to 2 to 3 millisieverts a year of natural radiation.
Fukushima University includes this type of data on its official website, and allows students concerned about radiation levels to take indoor sports for gym class. It’s difficult for outsiders to detect the tension here, but there are most certainly concerns over radiation levels.
Such concerns and decontamination efforts exist all over Fukushima, but it’s especially unfortunate for the Fukushima University track and field team because many Japanese records have been set here, particularly in the women’s sprints.
Fukushima University track and field team manager Kazuhisa Kawamoto, 54, who was hired by the school 28 years ago, has spent countless hours helping young athletes reach their potential. For example, five students and graduates who trained at Fukushima University made it to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
One of them, 400-meter national record-holder Asami Chiba, 26, whose maiden name is Tanno, found out in February 2011 that she was pregnant.
Throughout the world, many top athletes continue actively competing after giving birth, including 2011 World Championships gold-medal high jumper Anna Chicherova of Russia and 2008 Beijing Olympics 400-meter hurdles bronze-medalist Tasha Danvers-Smith of the United Kingdom. Chiba was willing to take on the challenge, too.
After the magnitude-9 earthquake and nuclear accident devastated northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011, Chiba temporarily evacuated to Yamagata Prefecture until the end of that month, and then returned to Fukushima.
When she got back, some of the pregnant women she had met at the hospital in Fukushima city had moved out of the prefecture due to radiation concerns. Chiba would be lying if she said she wasn’t concerned about continuing to live in Fukushima.
But she had no intention of leaving the prefecture where she was born and raised. She gathered information on radiation on her own as well as from her doctors and team manager Kawamoto. Getting adequate information gradually made her feel better about the situation.
On Sept. 16, Chiba gave birth to a 2,964-gram baby girl--her first daughter, Mitsuki.
Chiba trained at Fukushima University until a week before delivering the baby.
“It felt refreshing to run with a big belly,” she says looking back.
Two months after giving birth, she resumed training and regained her pre-pregnancy body. She is scheduled to begin competing in races this month.
Chiba and her teammates now belong to a corporate team sponsored by a local bank, the Toho Bank. The team was formed in April 2011, right after the quake.
Preparations had been under way before the quake to launch the team, but it almost didn’t happen because six of the bank’s branch offices in the evacuation zone had to be shut down, and the local economy was thrown into chaos.
But Toho Bank President Seishi Kitamura, 64, decided to green light the team, saying, “These are times when we need sports to give us something to look forward to.”
Another member of the team, 100-meter sprinter Mayumi Watanabe, 28, who is also aiming for the London Olympics, says: “When the world hears the word ‘Fukushima,’ they think of the nuclear accident. But if Fukushima athletes compete at the Olympics, we can show the world that Fukushima is OK.”
Fukushima Prefecture has long been considered the “track and field kingdom” of Japan, but the population of runners there is shrinking.
The number of athletes (in junior high school or over) registered with the Fukushima Amateur Athletic Association has shrunk by about 200 to roughly 6,000 last year. Fukushima Amateur Athletic Association Chairman Toshio Katahira, 67, fears the number will drop again this year.
Non-athletes are also getting less exposure to sports. Children are being discouraged from playing outside due to radiation concerns, and school sports teams are refraining from outdoor activities.
To assure athletes and non-athletes alike, the association measures the radiation levels at each stadium or track, and gives detailed explanations during meetings with team managers. Despite these efforts, people still voice concerns over safety.
But Fukushima University track and field club manager Kawamoto is not discouraged.
“We don’t use the quake as an excuse,” he says. “We just do things the way we always did.”
To continue running in Fukushima is a challenge in and of itself. Under these adverse conditions, the Olympics can serve as a special challenge, hopefully one that will be uplifting for insiders and outsiders alike.
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