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Noguchi should carry flag for Japan at Beijing Games

by Ed Odeven

Koji Murofushi is a gifted athlete. The reigning Olympic champion in the men’s hammer throw, he’s achieved widespread notoriety in Japan just like his father, Shigenobu, the longtime national record-holder in the discipline, before him.

Koji Murofushi is also the leading candidate to be Japan’s flag-bearer at the Beijing Summer Olympics’ Opening Ceremony, it was recently reported.

Murofushi’s career-defining accomplishment to date, however, was not achieved without controversy (don’t blame that on him). His silver medal at the 2004 Athens Summer Games was upgraded to a gold after Hungarian Adrian Annus was stripped of his gold medal for refusing to take a drug test.

This much is clear: Murofushi is admired for his athleticism, good looks and intelligence (he penned his doctoral thesis on, ahem, the biomechanics of the hammer throw).

But does that make him the best candidate to be the flag-bearer?

I don’t think so.

Yesteryear’s drug scandals now grab the headlines almost as often as yesterday’s game results, and so a reminder that Murofushi’s gold medal has an asterisk next to it in the Olympic record books is just another reminder of the ugly stain drugs has cast on the sports we love.

This distraction/reminder shouldn’t be there on the eve of the Summer Games. It can, and should, be avoided.

The Japan Olympic Committee’s reported three other short-list candidates for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be the flag-bearer at the Opening Ceremony on Aug. 8 in China are all reigning Olympic gold medalists: judo star Ryoko Tani, wrestling standout Saori Yoshida and swimmer Kosuke Kitajima.

Of the three just-mentioned athletes, Kitajima is the clear-cut top choice; the Tokyo native’s double-gold-medal-winning effort in Athens provided the most impressive, memorable moments.

An announcement is expected to be made in late July by the JOC’s executive council.

It seems to me, though, that Mizuki Noguchi’s name should also be mentioned. The defending women’s Olympic marathon champion captured a gold medal in a sport Japan has become expected to excel in on the international stage.

A brief reminder: Naoko Takahashi won the women’s marathon gold medal at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, and Yuko Arimori took home the silver in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and earned the bronze at the ’96 Atlanta Games.

Hey, imagine what was going through Noguchi’s mind on the night before the race. It probably was something like this: Remember, Mizuki, you’ve gotta win a medal. If Yuko-san and Naoko-san can do it, so can you.

So, as you can see, Noguchi thrived under pressure. She handled the intense heat on a scorching summer day in Athens and prevailed over a tough field that included England’s Paula Radcliffe and Catherine Ndereba, the great Kenyan champion, to etch her name into the history books.

And in doing so, Noguchi extended Japan’s now-great Olympic female marathon tradition of success for another four years.

So why isn’t Noguchi’s name on the JOC’s short list?

There can only be two logical reasons.

She asked to not be a flag-bearer, choosing to avoid the spotlight. Or it was a glaring oversight by the JOC.

I hope it wasn’t the latter.

Noguchi deserves the opportunity to be recognized by her compatriots and the world on this grand global stage. She is clearly an ideal candidate for this honor.