This is the second and final installment of an exclusive interview with Naoko Takahashi, the gold medalist in the 2000 Sydney Olympic women’s marathon.
The Japan Times: While you were growing up who were some of your athletic idols in Japan and abroad?
Naoko Takahashi: I guess Abebe (Bikila). The two-time Olympic marathon gold medalist (Rome 1960, Tokyo 1964) from Ethiopia.
I never saw him in person (Bikila died in 1973). But books and people around me say he was a great runner.
I don’t know what kind of person he was, but even to this day people still talk about him and people around the world recognize his name, and regardless of nationality and race everybody is attached to him. And that is very admirable.
JT: From what age do you remember watching the Olympics on TV? Were there any performances that stick out in your mind?
I don’t really remember the first time I actually saw the Olympics, but the most memorable scene would be (Yuko) Arimori running. I can vaguely recall scenes of athletes, but watching Arimori running left a striking impression on me, like, “This is the Olympics and there is a Japanese person participating!”
Particularly because my goal then was also to participate in the Olympics. The scene of her running was very striking. When I was young I used to watch so many different championships and meets on TV so I can’t really remember or differentiate them.
Do you have any particular interest outside of sports? Do you have time to keep up on current events?
I don’t really have any. Well, I watch the news.
But I don’t go out to watch movies because it is difficult to find time to do so, but now and then I will rent videos and watch them at home.
When you won the gold medal in Sydney it ended a long string of frustrating performances by Japanese track and field athletes at the Olympics. Do you think your victory has changed what seems like a long-held Japanese philosophy of just being happy to get a good result and not win?
Yes, I think it did. When I ran in the 5,000 meters at the World Championships (in 1997 in Athens) it was big news that it was the first time a Japanese was in the final. Now a lot more Japanese athletes are becoming involved in events outside Japan.
If it were in Japan for example, the athletes who ran the 5,000 within 13 minutes and 5 seconds would always be in the final, and the results in the races were always routine. But in events outside Japan you could see there would be so many different patterns to races, and it enabled the Japanese athletes to see a wider aspect of the competition.
With me running in the Olympics, I think it made other Japanese feel that, if there is an athlete just like them from the same country who can do it, then they could do it too. It let them picture themselves in my shoes.
The 2-hour, 20-minute mark used to be one limit — now it’s 2 hours and 15 minutes — and with one person breaking that barrier (2:20), especially a Japanese female marathoner, my achievement brought them closer to the world’s top level.
Much has been made of how your coach Yoshio Koide has encouraged you over the years to improve your performances. Do you think Japanese athletes are not encouraged enough by their coaches? Do you think Japanese athletes are over-coached?
Yes, well, I think this is a question I am not entitled to comment on. My coach is someone very important to me in the world of track and field. I still feel he is the one who helped me develop into who I am today and who made it possible for me to have all these different experiences.
It doesn’t mean that the situation is like that for all the other Japanese athletes in Japan. For some, they may feel that they are unable to get along with their coach and for others they could be indispensable.
I think there are a lot of different situations and it is all right to have different ideas, different athletes and different coaches. So I don’t think it is right for me to say whether one is better than the other. But I feel it is important that the athletes find a coach who suits them.
There still is a tradition in Japan where athletes move on with their career from high school based on the opinion of their teachers or other things and they end up going somewhere (into company teams, clubs and the like) by the flow of things without thinking about it.
People need to make their choices themselves based on their own feelings and self-consciousness.
Your race results really depend on whether you can get along well with the training drills and schedules your coaches come up with. Looking at the training methods of different clubs, there really isn’t much difference among what they do.
On average the athletes all run 40-50 km. So it’s not so much what the coaches are like, but more about the total sync of the runners with their training.
It just depends on how the athletes can find coaches who match them.
Is it possible for athletes to choose to be with certain coaches?
It is very rare for athletes in Japan to be able to train with the coaches that they want to be with. Especially high school students.
When they decide their future, they are still uncertain about their feelings. If they decide they want to do track and field for a career, I think it is important to give them advice and let them decide, to lend a hand on which direction to go in.
But there are a lot of athletes who have their direction decided, not based on their feelings, but because their coaches said so, or their teacher said to go to this club, and so forth. And they are going to be spending the next four years or so there and I think it is important that they need to go to the club they want to go to — somewhere that they are going to be taken good care of.
I don’t think even half of the high schoolers get to choose their coaches.
Coach Koide has said: “Takahashi’s strongest points are that she really loves running and she is very easy to coach because she follows my instruction very well.” Do you always listen to your coach?
Well, I shouldn’t say, “No, I don’t want to do that,” under any circumstance because he is telling me to do all these things not because he hates me, but because he wants to make me a better runner.
So, whatever the coach tells me, be it something I want to instantly reject, I would think before replying.
I may say, “Yes, yes, I understand, but maybe this is better,” and then we would think and the coach may end up saying, “OK that is better” or “No, my way is better.” But we are both thinking and trying to move in the same direction.
Can you tell us which marathon you ran earlier in your career that really made you realize you had a chance to be among the best?
I never thought, and still don’t think, that I could compete against the world’s best in the 5,000.
Marathon was something outside of my life, but when I saw Arimori run on TV, I first felt I wanted to run at the Olympics.
For the first time I felt something inside of me that I wished I could do.
Then when Hiromi Suzuki — whom I used to practice with — won the marathon at the World Championships (in Athens in 1997), because I had been doing the same training as her, I felt, “Maybe I can do the same marathon training. I want to also run in the marathon.”
But it wasn’t until after the Asian Games (where Takahashi won the gold medal in 1998 in Thailand) that I first wished I wanted to run the marathon at the Olympics, and thought maybe I can do it.
So when I first began thinking maybe I can run the marathon, the Olympics were something way up in the clouds.
Is there anyone whom you have been running with that you think can also make it on the world level?
Now I am just focusing on myself.
But I really know how everybody feels because I used to run at the prefectural ekiden (in Gifu) and I was 45th out of 47 the first time.
From then I ran seven years straight at that meet, and from 45th I improved to the 30s, to the 20s, the top 10 and then the fastest time in the distance.
So I know that my real self is 45th out of 47. If I hadn’t tried, that is where I would have been, and so to this day I just keep trying to improve myself.
Of course you have to be in great physical condition to run the marathon at the level you do. But once the training is over and the race begins, can you tell us how much the mental factor comes in? What percentage is mental vs. physical on race day?
I think mental fatigue is a big factor for the runners. Maybe it is bigger than the actual physical tiredness one feels. Marathon is like a world of patience.
During practice too, it comes down to how you can stay motivated.
On the day of the race, too, if you can’t get your mental level up, even if you might be physically great or vice versa, it’s about matching the two elements.
You must have a balance between them, that is the most important thing.
You have said: “I have had two big dreams: to win the Olympic gold medal and to set the world record. Now both have come true.” How do you keep motivating yourself?
I like to have an aim all the time. What is hardest for me is to not have a goal to aim for.
When I couldn’t run in Seville (in Spain at the World Championships in 1999), the Olympics were far away and it was like being in the dark, not knowing where to go or what to do.
Then when I ran in an ekiden, I rediscovered the joy of running, and I wanted to have a goal, an aim all the time.
Right now I want to run at the Olympics (in Athens in 2004), but four years is a long time and I can’t really think of that all the time. I do want to have some more immediate goals and that will be something like running in two straight marathons or running at an ekiden.
Right now I want to prepare for the Olympic qualifying and that will eventually lead to my next goal, which would be to win two Olympic golds in a row.
You are 30 years old now and in the prime of your career. Have you thought about what you will do when you are finished running competitively?
(Yuko) Arimori and (Hiromi) Suzuki used to tell me that when you hit 30, your body will suddenly start getting tired and it will become difficult to get rid of the fatigue and so forth. And now that I have become 30, when I am training together with the athletes in their teens, it is apparent I don’t have the ability to recover like them.
The tiredness won’t go away in a day, it gets carried over to the next day. But when we run 20 and 30 km, I find that I have more speed and stamina than the younger athletes, and that’s when I feel that at the top level — that being 30 isn’t such a big deal after all, and that I am not really declining physically.
I feel that at this stage I could probably get away with it for the next two years and I hope I can do that, too. I used to think that the road would never end, and that it would continue going, but right now my one big goal is winning the next Olympics.
I don’t know what will happen after that, but even if I do retire from competitive running I still probably won’t be able to quit track and field.
I think I will be running when I’m 40 or 50. I want to keep my dream and continue running.
I don’t really have any firm plans on what I want to do when everything is over, but I don’t think it’s good to let my feelings wander, so I probably shouldn’t think about it and just focus on the Olympics two years from now.
Until then, that will be my ultimate goal and I believe my devotion will lead to a good result.
You spend a great deal of your time training. What are your hobbies?
I really don’t have time for hobbies. Usually I only have Sundays off, so maybe I’ll go out to eat something, and, if I’m in the States on Sundays, even when we go out shopping, we go as a group.
So I really don’t have any free time, maybe 10 days throughout the whole year.
I’ll just go shopping, not always buying, just going out and looking. If time allowed I would like to travel, go to “onsen” or different countries.
How about music? Do you have a favorite Japanese or international musician?
Japanese music mainly. I like Yutaka Ozaki. I don’t really listen to musicians outside Japan, I do watch MTV and I listen to NOW CDs (compilations of different artists).
Do you have any brothers or sisters?
I have a brother named Tetsuro. He got married two years ago and works for Toyota Motors.
Do you have a favorite saying or phrase? Words you use to live by every day?
“On the cold days when the flower doesn’t bloom, extend your roots deep downward. Then there will come a day when you have a big flower.”
My high school teacher taught me these words.
When you don’t always get results immediately from what you’re doing, you’ll wonder if you’re doing the right thing. But my teacher said my efforts (practice or training) will help me some day in the future.
This is the time you should build your fundamentals just like trees extend roots downward. You’re preparing for the day the big flower blooms.
What advice would you give to kids who are interested in competing in athletics?
I started off weak, and if you want to compete in the Olympics you may think that you have to start early, or you need high-class training, but there is a chance for everybody no matter how slow you may start.
I began when I was 23, 24, and when I was 25, I began training seriously for the marathon and I was able to do it.
You should hold a strong feeling, and make it something you love the most, something you can enjoy doing.
What do you think of Britain’s Paula Radcliffe, the current world record holder in the women’s marathon?
She is a great runner.
I can’t believe I am in the same position or level as her. As a rival I don’t even know if I am qualified to be compared to her.
As a person she is a strong runner and I want to congratulate her for that record.
At this moment, if I were to run with her at Chicago or Berlin, I feel I probably wouldn’t have a chance.
But regarding the Olympics, I believe that is a completely different story. I believe in the saying: “At the Olympics the wind blows differently.”
The Olympics are a special event that only takes place once in four years and the strongest runner doesn’t always record the best result.
The course, the heat, and all these different elements are things that need to be taken into consideration and with this in mind I believe I do have a chance at the Olympics.
I believe I do have a chance against her.
I believe that there are going to be a lot more runners appearing on the world scene within the next two years and they give me the motivation to try harder, and I’m sure everyone feels like that.
Every time you run on television, the ratings are incredible. When you were going for the world-best time in Berlin in 2001, it is estimated that 55 million people were watching you on TV here in Japan. That is almost half the population of the nation. Doesn’t that overwhelm you a bit?
I am really happy about that. Recently I’ve only been able to run maybe once a year or so and it’s an honor that people still remember me, and you can tell that people’s awareness of the sport is big.
Cheering me on is something that doesn’t have anything to do with their personal lives, and I am not their relative or anything, but they cheer for me as if they were doing it for themselves and they are just great.
That they have to watch TV and the scenery doesn’t change much for 2 hours and 20 minutes, that is quite amazing and it really makes me happy.
There are so many different sports these days and the level of viewership is a tribute to the people who came before me and built the marathon up and made it as popular as it is now.
Being a part of that is amazing and I am grateful.