Olympics

JAAF officials regret IOC's decision to move marathon, race walk events to Sapporo

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

“Athlete first” is a magical phrase. When you use it, people will be convinced.

Well, maybe it doesn’t always work, like for some of the Japan Association of Athletics Federations executives.

The development committee of the sport’s governing body in the country held a news conference in Tokyo on Tuesday, expressing its frustrations over the International Olympic Committee’s decision to move the marathon and race walk competitions to Sapporo amid concerns over extreme heat at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Kazunori Asaba, the director of the committee, said that athletes, their coaches and supporting staff had worked hard to get the athletes ready to compete in Tokyo, while certainly being aware of the potentially deadly heat in nation’s capital. With that said, he added that it was “a decision that should not have been made.”

“It’s extremely regrettable that (the venues) have been changed at this time,” Asaba said.

Figuratively speaking, Asaba said that this meant that someone who had originally planned to climb Mount Everest is suddenly told to climb another mountain.

Toshihiko Seko, who serves as the marathon project leader on the committee, was even more emotional than Asaba about the coming-out-of-the-blue decision by the IOC last month. The 63-year-old former Olympic marathon runner said that it takes time for him to refresh his mind-set for Sapporo.

Seko echoed the same sentiment as Asaba, saying that a decision should not be altered this way.

“That’s not an ‘athlete first (plan),’ ” Seko said. “We hear that (the temperature) was about 34, 35 degrees when (Mizuki) Noguchi won gold at the Athens Olympics. And there have been many other cases (Olympics) that were held in the heat.”

Seko appeared that he was not convinced with the reason to “avoid the heat,” hinting that he thinks there might have been another reason for the venue change.

“We’d like to know, in all seriousness, why it had to change,” Seko said. “We’ve been doing things so seriously, so we would like to hear (the real reason from the IOC).”

With the venue being moved to Sapporo, the IAAF has also drawn up a pair of schedule ideas. Either way, the men’s and women’s marathon competitions would be held on the same day. The men’s marathon has traditionally been scheduled for the final day of the Summer Games, but that wouldn’t be the case with either plan.

Seko insisted that the men’s marathon has been one of the most iconic events at the Olympics and should be held on the final day.

“So hopefully, (the men’s competition) will be hosted on the final day, then we’ll have the podium ceremony before the closing ceremony. That’s how I think is ideal.”

On the other hand, Seko stated that he had fears that marathon could be dropped from the Olympics if the JAAF continued to demands that the marathon competitions must remain in Tokyo. Despite making the national team, Seko was not able to compete at the 1980 Moscow Olympics as Japan boycotted it. He was a gold-medal favorite for the Summer Games.

On Tuesday, Seko revealed his conversation with Yuma Hattori, who secured a spot in the men’s marathon race for the 2020 Games during September’s Marathon Grand Championship. According to Seko, Hattori told Seko that he would still be much more fortunate compared with Seko.

“When he told me so, I was going to choke up,” said Seko, who finished 14th at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. “We would hope to compete in Tokyo, but the decision has been made and we would like to be united as one so that we will win a medal, win the whole thing in Sapporo.”

Now, whether they are fully convinced or not with the venue change, JAAF administrators know that they have to move on.

However, they urged the IOC and International Association of Athletics Federations to decide the routes for the marathon and race walk competitions, because otherwise they could not resume their project.

Seko said that now that the JAAF has accepted the venue change, he would like the IOC to concede a little bit to get the JAAF to be part of the process to choose the routes.

There’s speculation that the marathon course could be drawn based on the annual Hokkaido Marathon. But Tadasu Kawano, the committee’s director of long distance and marathon, does not buy into the idea.

“It’s a personal impression,” Kawano said, “but looking at the trend of the IAAF in recent years, I think there is a higher possibility they would host the races in a circular course.”

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