As the Summer Olympic Games in Athens approach, the media have begun to speculate on Japan’s medal chances. Such speculation tends to become more desperate with each passing Olympics because the number of medals Japan brings home has steadily dropped since 1964 while the size of the media itself has grown exponentially.

Consequently, there is greater focus on the handful of athletes who are likely to bring home gold. Right now, it seems as if the only two people who are expected to produce in Athens are swimmer Kosuke Kitajima and marathon runner Naoko Takahashi.

Because Kitajima will participate in several swimming events, odds are he will likely win something, but Takahashi’s prospects are slimmer. People believe she has a good shot at a medal simply because she’s already won one, namely the gold at Sydney. But the women’s marathon is a one-shot deal, and the competition is legion. More significantly, the variables are much greater than they are in other events. The chances of coming in first, second, or third depend on more than just a runner’s endurance and speed.

As one of the few Japanese athletes who did produce in Sydney, Takahashi’s celebrity was blown way out of proportion to her accomplishment (which isn’t to suggest that her accomplishment was slight, but rather that she has had to carry the entire weight of Japan’s Olympic hopes as a result). After Sydney she went professional, and by going professional her public profile has grown considerably. She currently appears in advertisements for six companies who pay her and her handlers billions of yen a year, and she is expected to be at the beck and call of the media since, as a pro, that is considered part of her job.

The attention has effectively made the women’s marathon the only event of any consequence for Japan and drawn attention to the way that the Japan Track and Field Association chooses the three athletes who will compete in Athens.

The process of selection isn’t as clear-cut as it is for other events owing to the unique characteristics of marathon running as a competitive sport. In other track and field events, Olympic athletes are chosen by means of screening competitions, but, as mentioned above, marathons are subject to so many variables on a given day that screening competitions aren’t considered appropriate.

The Japanese women who want to compete in Athens have had to run in marathons in the last year to prove to the Track and Field Association their potential for victory. The final decision will be made by the association March 15, the day after the Nagoya Marathon.

Takahashi’s ticket to Athens is not guaranteed. In the Tokyo Marathon last November she finished second overall with a time that was eight minutes slower than her personal best, and while she beat every other Japanese runner, she was notably poor during the latter half of the race. The media made much of her generally emaciated figure (only a few years ago, however, the media was “bashing” Takahashi for being plump).

It got worse for Takahashi when she did not participate in the Osaka Marathon in January. Naoko Sakamoto and Masako Chiba placed first and second with times that were, respectively, two minutes faster and 17 seconds slower than Takahashi’s Tokyo time. The best time of any Japanese woman runner in the past year has been Mizuki Noguchi’s 2:24:14 at the World Championships in Paris last summer.

After the Osaka race, reporters descended on Takahashi’s coach Yoshio Koide to find out if Takahashi would run in Nagoya. Annoyed, he refused to comment. Eventually, she announced that she wouldn’t run, and a press conference planned for Feb. 10 was canceled Feb. 7.

The media buzz is that she doesn’t want to risk a bad showing in Nagoya. In the Asahi Shimbun a few weeks ago, marathon coach Takeyuki Nakayama said that Takahashi probably believes she wouldn’t be able to give her all in Nagoya since she has to save herself for Athens, but he thinks she should run in Nagoya anyway “to prove herself.” His feeling is that the “general atmosphere,” meaning presumably the media and the public (which has been force-fed Takahashi by the media), would rather see her go to the Olympics than other runners who might be more deserving. Coach Nakayama advocates a decisive competition to select the Olympic runners, since it’s the only fair way.

In a virtual rebuttal in the same newspaper, former marathon runner Akemi Masuda supports the current system since the primary consideration should be “a runner’s chance of winning.” The debate thus mirrors the controversy that surrounds the modern Olympics: sportsmanship vs. spectacle. The Olympic ideal is that of a competition where amateur athletes get to compete against one another on the world stage, but the reality is nationalism and win-at-any-cost strategies.

If the ideal were the norm, then other Japanese female runners should be given opportunities to go to the Olympics since Takahashi has already had hers. The reality is that people prefer proven winners. Takahashi’s precedent is Yuko Arimori, who followed a marathon silver in Barcelona with a bronze in Atlanta and then went pro. Arimori’s achievement was exceptional, but people think Takahashi can repeat it. It’s a lot to expect of anyone, especially in a sport you can only do once a year.