Have you heard the one about the Japanese runner who took 54 years to finish the Olympic marathon?

To be precise, 54 years, 8 months, 6 days, 5 hours, 32 minutes and 20.3 seconds was how long it took Shiso Kanakuri to finish the race — not that the time, which was only ever recorded as a joke, matters. It’s Kanakuri himself who is important, because when he set off on that infamous run, precisely 100 years ago in Stockholm, he was one of just two athletes representing Japan at its very first Olympic Games.

Sport had not been a particularly popular pastime in early 20th-century Japan. Fledgling clubs catering to various physical activities had popped up at schools and universities, but, as the historian Kazuo Sayama has written, “there had been martial arts in Japan, but they were very different to the French idea of sport. (In the early 1900s) few Japanese had awoken to sport’s real meaning.”

The French reference is crucial, because it was that country’s notion of sport that informed the 1896 revival of the Olympic Games in the modern era. Part of that idea, as promoted by the International Olympic Committee’s inaugural chairman, a Frenchman named Pierre de Coubertin, was that sport was a progenitor of peace, and hence the participation of all the races was to be encouraged.

After the London Olympics of 1908, Coubertin decided it was time for Asians to join the fray, and so he arranged for a Japanese representative to join the IOC. The man who got the nod was the well-respected judo wrestler Jigoro Kano (later known as the “father of modern judo”), who shortly set about holding athletics trials for the next Olympics, which would be held in Stockholm in 1912.

The trials for the marathon were held on Nov. 19, 1911, and one of the competitors was a 20-year-old student from the Tokyo Higher Normal School named Shiso Kanakuri (his name is sometimes rendered Shizo Kanaguri). Originally from an area of Kumamoto Prefecture in Kyushu now known as Tamana, his initial approach to running, as reported by Sayama in a biography published last year, was indicative of the lack of experience among his countrymen.

“There was a belief at the time that perspiration made runners tired,” Sayama explains, before noting that “Kanakuri’s initial approach was to abstain from any drink at all, at one time making himself sick.”

Fortunately, by the time of the trials, Kanakuri had come to appreciate the importance of proper hydration, and he flew around a roughly 25-mile (40.2 km) course in 2 hrs. 32 min. 30 sec., well ahead of his rivals.

Kanakuri was thus in the team, and he was soon joined by a short-distance specialist named Yahiko Mishima from Tokyo Imperial University (forerunner of the University of Tokyo). With the addition of Kano, as Chef de Mission, and also physical-education specialist Hyozo Omori, as team manager, the party that would travel to Stockholm was complete.

On May 16, 1912, The Japan Times noted their departure with an article that both lowered and raised expectations: “As this is the first time Japanese runners (or any Japanese athletes) have taken part in these world-contests, it is impossible to say what they will achieve. But both are full of grit and nerve, and may be counted upon for doing credit to themselves and to Japan.”

But lack of experience was not the only thing working against the Japanese runners. There was also the fact of the 10 days to be spent on the Trans-Siberian Railway, when opportunities to train would be at a minimum. “Kanakuri took to running around each station that they stopped at,” Sayama writes.

At Stockholm, things didn’t improve. Omori soon fell ill, and so Kanakuri, the youngest in the group, ended up spending more time looking after him than training. (Incidentally, Omori is now known as “the father of Japanese basketball,” because, in 1908, he brought back that sport from the United States, where he had studied.)

The day of the Stockholm marathon, July 14, 1912, was a scorcher. A photograph of the 68 runners at the start line shows them all wearing hats or towels around their heads — a somewhat quaint attempt to deal with the 32-degree heat.

According to Sayama, Kanakuri later recalled how the other runners had been surprised at his footwear: tabi, the two-toed canvas shoes still worn by some workers on construction sites. Although Kanakuri’s were fortified with extra canvas on their soles, they wouldn’t have afforded much protection.

Still, they were probably better than spikes, which is what the Japanese media somehow decided Kanakuri had worn as they later tried to explain the disaster that was about to unfold.

Somewhere around the 27-km mark, Kanakuri collapsed, probably from hyperthermia (in simple terms, extreme overheating). It is believed he briefly lost consciousness before being taken to the house of local residents who assisted him.

Kanakuri’s withdrawal from the race was hardly unusual. After all, only half the 68 starters ended up finishing the race. What was unusual was that he didn’t notify the event officials. They duly listed him as “missing.”

The Japanese runner was likely too dispirited by his failure to worry about filling in the proper paperwork. Sayama reports that in his diary Kanakuri lamented bringing “shame” to his countrymen, but at the same time he struck an optimistic note: “This failure will beget success,” he vowed.

Although The Japan Times was among the media that blamed Kanakuri’s failure on an erroneous assumption about his footwear, it was nevertheless kind to both him and Mishima (who failed to get through to the finals of his 100-, 200- or 400-meter races).

“It will be unfair to deal harshly with these young athletes for their faults,” an unidentified scribe wrote on July 21, 1912. Instead, that same writer dealt harshly with a system that had sent unprepared athletes onto the world stage in the first place.

Noting that the ultimate winner of the marathon, Kennedy Kane McArthur of South Africa, had spent 2½ years preparing for the race, the writer demands that no more athletes be sent abroad “except with the most serious determination and all possible preparedness.”

Kanakuri seems to have agreed. On his return to Japan, he immediately began preparing for the Berlin Olympics, which were due to be held in 1916. However, World War I put paid to that athletics festival, and another four years later, at age 28, Kanakuri competed in the marathon at the Antwerp Olympics in Belgium — finishing a creditable 16th. In 1924, he competed in Paris, too, but had to retire halfway through the race.

In the meantime, Kanakuri achieved what is now his greatest legacy: the Hakone Ekiden, the 218-km team relay contested by universities from around the nation each New Year’s. Kanakuri played a key role in establishing that race officially known as the Tokyo-Hakone Round-Trip College Ekiden Race, which ever since its inauguration in 1920 has helped popularize long-distance running among Japan’s youth.

Then in 1967, when Kanakuri was 75 years old and no doubt reflecting on a long and illustrious career, he received an odd invitation. The Swedish National Olympic Committee wanted him to return to Stockholm to participate in the 55th anniversary celebrations of the 1912 Olympics.

Kanakuri should have realized that 55 was an odd anniversary to celebrate. Upon his arrival in the Scandinavian country he was informed that he had become known there as “the missing marathoner” — the man who had vanished without a trace all the way back in 1912.

And thus, for the benefit of the local media and the Swedish NOC, which was then trying to raise funds to send athletes to the following year’s Olympic Games in Mexico, Kanakuri was asked to “finish” the race.

Judging by press reports of the proceedings, the elderly gent was only too happy to oblige, running jovially around the last corner before charging through a special ribbon.

His time was promptly read out — 54 years, 8 months, 6 days, 5 hours, 32 minutes and 20.3 seconds — and, according to Sayama, the elderly racer then responded: “It was a long trip. Along the way, I got married, had six children and 10 grandchildren.”

The apparently modest Kanakuri could have boasted of having another “child,” too. After all, by then he was known in his home country as “the father of Japanese marathon.”

An exhibition on Shiso Kanakuri’s life is under way at Tamana City Museum Kokoro Pia through Sept. 2. For further information, see www.city.tamana.lg.jp/kokoropia/kikaku/kanakuri21_2.html.

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