Keirin racing is a Japanese phenomenon almost as old as modern sporting itself. An over-the-top combination of athleticism, gambling, glory-seeking, and tradition, Keirin has provided Japanese cyclists a place to strategically compete on their bikes for more than half a century. It's a mega-budget sport, grossing funds in excess of $10 billion dollars in ticket sales alone, and that's before the federally administered gambling is taken into account.
Japanese Keirin racing is simpler than it lets on. Though there is some strategy to bicycle pacing, the sport mainly involves a set number of cyclists following a lead pacer over four laps. At the final, fifth lap, the pacer pulls off of the track as the bikers make a mad dash to the finish for prizes and national glory.
If the overview of Keirin racing is interesting to you, we've compiled a list of five fun and unusual facts about the sport:
Keirin is Not Uniquely Japanese
Though the Keirin version of the sport originated in post-war Japan, "road-bike racing" (as it is referred to in the rest of the world) took off after 1948 as an international spectator's sport. Most Japanese Keirin stars prefer not to stray beyond their home country, however, noting that their relative comfort and admirable wealth could not be attained in larger, more difficult markets.
Keirin is a Sporting Discipline
Professionalism plays a large part in Japanese Keirin racing. The goal for all Keirin cyclists is not only wealth and fame, but a nationalistic sense of discipline and integrity. Most professional level racers are graduates of the Japanese government's Keirin racing schools, which function as post-secondary colleges for aspiring athletes.
A Keirin school graduate can look forward to 30 or more years of racing, as the average competitor races well into their 40s. Out of every 1000 applicants to the Keirin school, only 75 are chosen for each entering class. Admittance is a great cultural honor.
Keirin is Highly Regulated
Based on rules dating from a regulation overhaul in 1957, all racing standards are heavily enforced and players are routinely scrutinized for perfection. All Keirin bicycles are made of simple steel frames with regulation size racing tires. This levels the playing field for all participants- a far cry from the $26,000 high tech Olympic racing bikes used every four years for racing track events.
All Keirin bikes also use expensive silk tire housings for each event, making the sport difficult to break into without sponsorship.
Gladiatorial Racing Gates
Set at the beginning of the track - out of the sight of adoring fans - lies the "racer's gate," a starting pen where the day's competitors suit up and mount their bicycles, jockeying for pole position. The racer's gate adds a small level of gladiator spirit to Keirin, as racers regularly end up in physical confrontations before the gate is lifted and the race begins.
Keirin Hero Worship
Keirin racing has quickly become Japan's national pastime. Big budget productions and broadcasts, coupled with high level prize payouts have ignited a new breed of celebrity idolizing in Japanese culture.
Veritable rock-stars, young Japanese Keirin racers are the models for aspiring youth and young athletes looking for fame and fortune on a national scale. With prize payouts well in the hundreds of million yen, the majority of Keirin racers live comfortably and support their families through competition.
Offering both exotic and exciting thrills to spectators internationally, Keirin remains a distinctly Japanese phenomenon. Nothing speaks more volumes about the extreme sporting spirit of the unique culture and discipline than the dedicated athletes of Keirin.