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JAAF promotes Marathon Grand Championship as vital preparation for 2020 Olympics

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Japan’s runners who earn spots for the Summer Olympics will gain significant experience running on a nearly identical course during the trial for the 2020 Tokyo Games on home soil.

The Japan Association of Athletics Federations revealed the date and course for the inaugural Marathon Grand Championship on Friday.

The MGC race will be held on Sept. 15, 2019. According to the JAAF, the start time will likely be around 9 a.m., although it is not official yet.

The International Olympic Committee has not announced the start time for the 2020 Olympic marathon. Speculation is that the race will begin at 7 a.m. due to potential mid-summer heat.

JAAF senior managing director Mitsugi Ogata said at a Tokyo news conference that the organization set the date to see if the runners would be able to compete while getting acclimated to hot weather.

When asked why the JAAF did not have the MGC in August, when the women’s and men’s Olympic races will be held on Aug. 2 and Aug. 9, respectively, if it wanted to make the MGC a pre-Olympic competition, Ogata said it would be too taxing for the runners.

“I know that it would be the best to compete in the circumstances that are as close (as the Olympics),” Ogata said. “But it would give big damage (to the athletes). We thought that it would be too dangerous to let the runners compete in the summer and then the next summer (at the Olympics). That is why we chose mid-September because it would provide a fairly similar climatical environment.”

Ogata added that the JAAF also wanted to make sure that the event would not overlap with others, including the IAAF World Championships in Doha (Sept. 28-Oct. 6) and the Rugby World Cup in Japan (Sept. 20-Nov. 2).

In addition to the race date, the MGC course will be similar to the one used for the Olympic marathons.

Because the new National Stadium, which is currently under construction, will not be completed in time for the MGC, Icho Namiki Avenue and Meiji Jingu Gaien will replace National Stadium as the starting and finishing points, respectively, for the event.

Icho Namiki Avenue and Meiji Jingu Gaien are both located near National Stadium, so the majority of the MGC course will be identical to the Olympic course.

“The athletes will build their confidence toward the main event (Tokyo Olympics) and be able to eliminate some of their worries,” said former star marathoner Toshihiko Seko, who serves as the director of the JAAF’s marathon development project team.

Seko said that the upward slopes over the course’s final three kilometers will be one of the key points for both the MGC and Olympics, and added that Japanese runners should take advantage of being able to study the course and run there.

“We would like to have an edge over our rivals (from other countries),” Seko said on behalf of Japanese marathoners.

Japan has not captured an Olympic marathon medal since Mizuki Noguchi grabbed the women’s gold at the 2004 Athens Games.

Naoko Takahashi, who claimed the women’s marathon gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, stressed the benefit of having the chance to compete on the same course on multiple occasions.

Takahashi cited one of her own experiences. At the now-defunct Tokyo International Women’s Marathon, she lost her momentum near the end of the 2003 race. However, she took advantage of that stretch two years later en route to winning the 2005 event.

“Those who earn spots for the Olympics through the MGC will gain considerable advantage toward the Olympics,” the 46-year-old Takahashi said.

Historically, selections for Japanese marathon representatives for the Olympics have not been transparent, and the JAAF decided to make them more legitimate. The nation’s track body overhauled the ways things are done, instituting a two-year qualifying process known as the Grand Champion Series.

The series kicked off last summer. The JAAF designated domestic races (five male and four female events), which include the Tokyo Marathon, Fukuoka International Marathon and Nagoya Women’s Marathon. The top finishers in those competitions who have qualified by meeting required time standards are headed to the MGC.

Yuta Shitara, who broke the men’s national record by completing the Tokyo Marathon in 2 hours, 6 minutes, 11 seconds in February, is among those who have already qualified for the MGC. That record had stood for 16 years.

Runners may also advance to the MGC as wild-card athletes if they meet JAAF criteria at international races.

In the MGC, the top two finishers in the male and female categories will earn spots for the Tokyo Olympics.

The JAAF has also designated domestic competitions (three men’s and three women’s) that will be held in the winter of 2019 and spring of 2000 as the MGC Final Challenge. One male and one female runner, who have the fastest times and meet JAAF-designated qualifying marks, will also punch tickets to the Olympics. But if no one meets the qualifying marks, runner-ups in the MGC will nab the remaining third spots).

“The course for the MGC has finally been set,” said Yuka Ando, who earned a spot for the MGC by placing third at the Osaka International Women’s Marathon in January with a time of 2:27:37. “Because it’s (almost) the same course as that for the Olympics, it’s easier for me to build up an image (to compete at the Tokyo Games) and easier to work out measures for it.”