Former Japan Olympian and top marathon media analyst Akemi Masuda is not the kind of person to mince words when it comes to forecasting on her favorite sport.
Tokyo last week.
Speaking to the Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan in Tokyo last week, Masuda was very blunt about what many in Japan consider the marquee event of the Athens Games — the women’s marathon.
“The only Japanese runner who has a chance at the gold medal is (Mizuki) Noguchi. The others have a chance at a medal, but definitely not the gold.”
Masuda, who represented Japan in the inaugural women’s Olympic marathon — in Los Angeles in 1984 — is the top expert on one of the nation’s most popular spectator sports and will again be covering the race for Japanese television.
Expectations are high in Japan, especially after Naoko Takahashi won the gold medal in Sydney in 2000. Despite Takahashi’s controversial omission from the Japan squad for Athens, the trio of runners who were selected (Noguchi, Naoko Sakamoto, Reiko Tosa) will be under intense pressure to produce.
Japan has medaled in the event in the last three Summer Games (2000 — Takahashi — gold; 1996 — Yuko Arimori — bronze; 1992 — Arimori — silver).
Though Masuda likes Noguchi’s chances in Athens, she is also realistic when considering the competition.
“The main worry for the Japanese is whether anybody can keep up with Britain’s Paula Radcliffe (the world record holder in the event). She is expected to set the pace in the race. With a personal best of 2 hours, 15 minutes, that is a major concern.
“The Japanese runners are thinking about strategy and how they can compete with Radcliffe. She is very strong, coming from a cross-country background, and is also good at 10,000 meters, but the Japanese coaches cite the fact that she has never won a marathon in extreme heat.”
“The marathon begins at 6:00 p.m. on Aug. 22 and it should be about 32 C when it starts,” Masuda noted. “My personal opinion is that Radcliffe can win in the heat. She has won a half-marathon in the heat and I believe she has what it takes.”
Masuda, who had a spectacular career as a distance runner, setting 12 Japan records and two world records during a 13-year span, dismisses all the talk about the elements.
“It doesn’t matter what the conditions are. It is all a matter of what kind of shape you are in. The weather conditions are not relevant. It all comes down to being in peak condition for the race.
“The three Japanese runners are all talking about the hills and what the heat is going to be like. I think it is all going to come down to what kind of condition Radcliffe is in.”
Masuda noted that Radcliffe has a strategy and sticks to it.
“I was there when Radcliffe set the world record in the London Marathon (in 2003). Her style is to take the lead from the beginning and find her rhythm. She is not going to change her style.
“If Radcliffe runs the first 5 km in 16 minutes, the Japanese will be able to keep up. But if she runs that distance in 15 minutes, the only Japanese runner who will be able to keep up is Mizuki Noguchi.”
Masuda cited Noguchi’s build, strength and training regimen in giving her a chance to compete with Radcliffe.
“Noguchi is very short. She is only 150 cm tall. But she has a very long stride (150 cm), which is very unusual.
“Naoko Takahashi, by contrast, is 163 cm, but her stride is only 145 cm.”
How is Noguchi able to have a longer stride than Takahashi?
“Because she is very strong. She has a lot of muscle and works out in the gym lifting heavy weights.
“Since winning the silver medal at the World Championships last year in France, Noguchi has been doing a lot of hard training. She now has a lot of muscle on her hips.
“Noguchi went to China to train and, in 35 days, she covered 1,350 km. This is more training than the male runners do.”
Despite Takahashi’s exclusion from the Japan team, Masuda is excited about the upcoming race.
“I am really looking forward to this year. Personally, I was disappointed that Q-chan didn’t make it. But looking at Noguchi, I think she is in just as good of shape as Q-chan was when she set the world record in the Berlin Marathon in 2001.
“The Japanese media has an obsession with Q-chan and how strong she is, but they don’t realize that Noguchi also has strength.
When asked to evaluate the chances of Sakamoto, winner of the 2004 Osaka Marathon, and Tosa, winner of the 2004 Nagoya Marathon, Masuda said, “Sakamoto may finish around fifth place. At best she could win the bronze.
“She likes big crowds and big events, which will be in her favor. She has speed and experience in the 5,000 meters. If there is a sudden increase in the pace, she would be able to keep up.
“Tosa is good when a race is slower and more tactical. She can adjust.
“She is also best suited for the course in Athens and is good at hanging in there in a tough race.”
If the weather conditions and layout of the course do come into play, Masuda believes Sakamoto and Tosa factor in the outcome.
“If Radcliffe runs at a slow pace, Tosa could keep up, but that probably won’t be the case. If the race is run at a slow pace, both Sakamoto and Tosa have a chance at a medal.
“If the race is run at a fast pace, the best Tosa could finish would be fifth.”
Masuda acknowledged that the course in Athens is formidable, no matter who is running, and provided a history lesson on it.
“Legend has it that in 490 B.C., when there was a war going on between Greece and Persia, a soldier ran the course to deliver a message to the Greek ruler and died after finishing the journey.
“The marathon course goes up in stages between the 10-km to 32-km mark, then it is all downhill until the finish.”
Unfortunately, the one weakness that Japan’s best bet in the race has will come into play at a crucial point.
“Noguchi is not good going downhill. The Japanese coaches are aware that her downhill running is a weakness and they have her training to improve this in St. Moritz (Switzerland).
“Even though the course is difficult, Noguchi’s training is perfect for it. One of the important technical factors in downhill running, is to keep your arms down because then they will act as a brake. This is what Noguchi has been working on.”
Masuda summed up the race by turning back the clock to the day she took to the starting line in the historic first women’s Olympic marathon.
“It will all come down to the condition the runners are in. Twenty years ago, when I trained for the Los Angeles Olympics, we went to Okinawa and ran in the heat and were exhausted by the time we got to L.A. We were worn out from all the training and had nothing left for the race.”
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