Imagine this: The moment you have waited a lifetime for has finally arrived. Years of blood, sweat and tears have been invested to bring you to your date with destiny — the women’s Olympic marathon final.
The hopes of a nation of 130 million people are resting squarely on your shoulders and you know you are expected to deliver a medal-winning performance. You wake up determined to try to do things normally — even on the most important day of your life — and then, you accidentally wash one of your contact lenses down the sink in your hotel room.
But instead of panicking and letting it ruin your day, you just carry on, and running without either contact lens, win the silver medal at the 1992 Barcelona Games, finishing just eight seconds behind the winner.
Sound like fiction? It’s not. In fact, it’s the stuff that legends are made of. Just ask Japan’s marathon sensation Yuko Arimori, because it happened to her.
Arimori, one of only three women (along with Russia’s Valentina Yegorova and Portugal’s Rosa Mota) to have won medals in two different Olympic marathons, likes the chances of Japan’s women in the event in Sydney.
“I think the Japanese marathoners will be strong, because they have the time to train now. I think if they perform well they can get a medal.
“If the weather is nice — the course is tough — they should run under 2 hours, 25 minutes. There are many factors involved, so it is hard to predict who will win and what their time will be.”
Japan’s favorite on the women’s side is 1998 Asian Games champion Naoko Takahashi of Sekisui Chemical. She set the Japan record on the way to victory in Bangkok, posting a time of 2 hours, 21 minutes, 47 seconds, which at the time was the fifth-best women’s marathon ever. She also won the Nagoya International Marathon in March in 2:22:19.
Takahashi, 28, has been training at high altitude in Boulder, Colo., (where Arimori currently lives and trains) the past several weeks with Arimori’s former coach Yoshio Koide.
Her competition in Sydney will include world record-holder Tegla Loroupe of Kenya, 1996 Olympic gold medalist Fatuma Roba of Ethiopia and Yegorova, along with several other new faces that have emerged upon the scene.
The Japanese media — in their inimitable fashion — have anointed Takahashi as the successor to Arimori, who will not be competing this time after struggling with injuries the past few years. Arimori will be in Sydney, however, as a broadcaster on the women’s marathon for Asahi television.
Competing along with Takahashi for Japan will be 22-year-old Ari Ichihashi, the silver medalist at the 1999 World Championships in Spain. Ichihashi, who runs for Sumitomo Visa, ran 2:27:02 in the blazing heat of Seville to finish just three seconds behind North Korea’s Song Ok Jong.
Japan’s third female marathoner is Eri Yamaguchi, who won the Tokyo International Marathon last November in 2:22.12. Yamaguchi, 27, runs for Tenman-ya.
Japan’s male marathoners include Takayuki Inubushi of Otsuka Pharmaceutical and Nobuyuki Sato and Shinji Kawashima both of Asahi Chemical.
Inubushi, 28, appears to be Japan’s best hope for a medal after setting the Japan record for the event at the Berlin Marathon in 1999, where he finished second in a time of 2:06:57. That performance shaved nearly five minutes off his previous personal best of 2 hours, 12 minutes.
Sato, 28, was the bronze medalist at last summer’s World Championships in Seville. In 1998 he finished second in the Fukuoka Marathon with a time of 2:08:48.
Kawashima, 34, was an alternate for the marathon in Atlanta. He had difficulty qualifying for Sydney, but finally recorded the necessary time in his 18th and final race when he finished in 2:09.04.
Arimori, now 33, has very basic advice for her compatriots. Stick to your plan and don’t do anything weird. As Arimori knows, athletes can be very superstitious when it comes time for a big event.
When asked what she would say to Takahashi in the final hours leading up to the race if asked, Arimori said, “I would tell her, ‘don’t do anything strange.’ Because sometimes before a race athletes will do something very strange.
“I will give you an example. During the last Olympics, one of my fellow female Japanese marathoners wore Asics shoes. Up until the Olympics, she had always worn socks when she ran, but all of sudden the day of the Olympic marathon she decided not to and her performance suffered as a result.
“I found out later that somebody from Asics told her, ‘with those shoes you don’t have to wear socks.’ She had always worn socks, but decided to do what the Asics person told her. This is a problem, as athletes often have many people around them offering advice, but in the end it is best to do it your own way.
“Naoko should just keep her mind focused on the race and how much time and effort she has put into training for it. I think if she does this, she can have a good performance.”
In trying to get inside the mind of the two-time Olympic medalist, I asked Arimori to contrast the difference between the mental and physical aspect of running a marathon.
“I think the mental aspect is very important,” said Arimori, who is set to run in the New York City Marathon on Nov. 5. “If a runner can’t stay focused mentally then they have no chance for a medal. I would say that for me, the mental factor was 80 percent of it. I wasn’t so strong, everybody knows that, but my mental control was. I don’t know why, but I was always able to stay focused mentally.
“On the morning of a race I try not think only of the race, but instead I think of the weather if it is a nice day and reflect on that. If I only try to concentrate on the race, my mental condition won’t be good. In fact, it would make me quite nervous.”
What about once the race is under way? What is going through a runner’s mind then?
“When I am actually running in the race, I think about my condition first of all,” Arimori replied. “Whether or not my legs are heavy. Then I focus on my mental state. Also I concentrate on my competitors. The pace is important, because somebody might try to break away from the others and I have to watch that. I try to be alert and careful once the race is under way.”
Arimori, who hopes to continue running competitively for a few more years, says the tens of thousands of spectators that line the course during a marathon always inspire her.
“I get power when I hear the fans cheering during a race. I don’t only hear the Japanese fans, I hear everybody and that is good for me. It really energizes me.”
And what of the moment — which has to rank as one of the most moving and dramatic in all of sport — when the lead marathon runners re-enter the Olympic Stadium?
Arimori says that despite the fans and announcers — not to mention a few sports writers — becoming very animated, she had one major feeling after running nearly 42 km: relief.
“When I saw the stadium I was happy and relieved at the same time. I wasn’t thinking about medals, just getting in and around the track and finishing the race as quickly as possible.”
This is interesting because Arimori gutted it out in the searing heat of Atlanta and really gritted her teeth on the final lap, where she held off Germany’s Katrin Dorre-Heinig by only six seconds for the bronze medal.
Despite winning two Olympic medals, Arimori says what she treasures the most are the people she met in Barcelona and Atlanta.
“I made many good friends at the Olympic Games. They helped give me many great memories.”