There is nothing sadder in sports than seeing a once-great athlete who has hung around too long.
Separated from reality by handlers, friends or family — sometimes all three — they forge on in hopes of more glory and money, seemingly unable to look in the mirror and recognize the obvious.
Sydney Olympic marathon gold medalist Naoko Takahashi is the latest example in a long line of sports heroes who just don’t seem to get it.
A disastrous outing at the Nagoya International Women’s Marathon last week is proof positive that her time has clearly passed.
Having kept her supporters and sponsors convinced she had a legitimate shot at qualifying for the Beijing Olympics with a campaign of smoke and mirrors, the 35-year-old Takahashi was left behind just 9 km into the race by the true contenders and finished 27th in a shocking time of 2 hours, 44 minutes, 18 seconds.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the sweat had barely dried off the Gifu native before the spin started on why she couldn’t put forth the kind of performance she had in the past.
Within a day after the race, Takahashi and her agent had blamed — in order — knee surgery she had seven months earlier, pre-race cramps in her calves and diarrhea she suffered while training in China as reasons for her poor result.
It was a textbook example of damage control, which included Takahashi’s vow to continue running competitively, but it didn’t fly with me.
Perhaps the gullible Japanese media fell for it, but even that is debatable.
The sad reality is that Takahashi has made one bad move after another, going back years, and it all caught up with her in Nagoya.
Following her stirring victory in Sydney, in September of 2000, which had the nation truly rejoicing, Takahashi became the first woman to break 2 hours and 20 minutes the following year, when she won the Berlin Marathon in 2:19.46.
She was 28 years old and at her physical peak, but shortly after this is when many in the sports community began scratching their heads at her judgment.
One year later, she made the strange choice to run the Berlin Marathon again, clearly with financial and sponsorship considerations weighing heavily in the decision.
The starting time of the race in Germany made it perfect for prime time on TV in Japan, which means huge ratings and high advertising rates for the network airing the race.
You get the picture.
Takahashi won the 2002 Berlin Marathon with a slightly slower time than she had the year before, but against a weak field with not much competition. It was almost a made-for-TV event, with her essentially running against the clock.
Instead of taking on elite competition in London or New York, she had taken the path of least resistance.
The chickens came home to roost the following fall, however, when she faded in the last 2 km of the 2003 Tokyo International Women’s Marathon, a qualifier for the Athens Olympics, and her time of 2:27.21 was judged not to be satisfactory enough to make the team.
I thought the Japan Association of Athletics Federations made a mistake in leaving Takahashi, who was the defending Olympic champion and had won six of seven marathons she had entered, off the team, but that is a different issue.
Takahashi was injured in 2004 and did not run a marathon, then came back and impressed with a victory in the 2005 Tokyo race, but absent a strong field.
Once again, it was peculiar to choose the same race from an athletic standpoint, but other considerations clearly factored in.
It was a moving effort nonetheless and provided just a glimmer of hope that she might have something left in the tank, but Beijing was still nearly three years away.
Then things got even stranger.
Having won Tokyo and seemingly restored some of the luster to her reputation, Takahashi chose to run in the nation’s capital again in 2006.
Now this was getting ridiculous.
Faced again with the chance to put herself on the starting line against the world’s best, she opted for the same and more financially rewarding route. It was bizarre and not the behavior of a true champion.
Sure enough, she flopped and finished third in 2:31.22, more than 5 minutes behind winner Reiko Tosa, yet still tried to keep fans believing she had a shot at qualifying for Beijing.
When 2007, and the Olympic qualifiers rolled around, did Takahashi test herself against defending Olympic champ Mizuki Noguchi in Tokyo — which seemingly had become her favorite race?
She waited until the final race in Nagoya, thinking she could sneak in and steal the final spot on the team against a weaker field.
The outcome, by this point, had become fairly predictable.
It reminded me of Mike Tyson being trotted out for another title shot even though he had only fought a few rounds in preceding years.
To think he could just step in the ring and magically return to his previous level was just a fantasy promoted by those looking to make a buck.
It was no different with Takahashi in Nagoya.
Her legions of fans and the Japanese media wanted to believe she was going to miraculously turn back the clock. But the reality by that point was that she had run one good marathon in the previous 4 1/2 years.
Now everybody — especially Naoko — needs to get real and recognize that she had a glorious career but it is time to move on.
She should exit the stage quietly and find a new challenge before all dignity is lost.