Reigning champion Birhanu Legese successfully defended his title while local star Suguru Osako got closer to securing the final spot on Japan’s Olympic team with a national-record-setting performance in the men’s race at the 2020 Tokyo Marathon on Sunday.

Legese, of Ethiopia, crossed the finish line in 2 hours, 4 minutes and 15 seconds in the annual event, which is among the world’s major races. Belgian Bashir Abdi took the runner-up spot in 2:04:49 while another Ethiopian, Sisay Lemma, was third in 2:04:51. Legese, who finished last fall’s Berlin Marathon in 2:02:28, the world’s fourth-best time, fell short of the Tokyo Marathon course record of 2:03:58.

“I originally aimed at running a time of 2:03:30 or faster,” said Legese, who gave himself a cushion with a spurt around the 39-km mark. “But it didn’t work out that way because I felt pain (in my left leg) and was forced to alter my plan to focus on just winning the race. I’m pleased to have won.”

The race was limited to only elite runners this year amid the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak. This resulted in not only far fewer runners, but also fewer spectators.

For local fans, the battle between elite Japanese marathoners for the final Olympic spot was the biggest attraction of the day.

Osako wound up on top of that group, coming through late and finishing fourth overall in 2:05:29 to set a new national record.

Osako successfully overtook Hiroto Inoue at about the 32-km point and soon left his rival behind. The 28-year-old rolled up his shirt and held his torso, near the area around the right side of his rib cage, and slowed his pace just after the 38-km mark. He kept the damage to a minimum and managed to finish the race with a record time.

The usually calm Osako pumped his fists as he rounded the final corner and shouted in excitement as he crossed the finish line.

“I finished in the fourth place, but I feel relieved to have gotten nearer to the Tokyo Olympics,” Osako said.

The Tokyo Marathon was the second of the final three Olympic trials for the Japanese men. The runner with the best time under 2:05:50 — Osako’s previous national record — will book a ticket to the Summer Games. The Lake Biwa Marathon, which is scheduled for Sunday, will be the final trial race.

However, it’s probably safe to assume Osako is likely to compete this summer in Sapporo, where the Olympic marathon will be held.

Osako, who set the previous national record at the Chicago Marathon in 2018, barely missed clinching an Olympic berth at last September’s Marathon Grand Championship, where he was third. But he has an edge over the other hopefuls, since he will get the remaining spot if no one meets the criteria in the final trials, which have been dubbed the MGC Final Challenge.

“I wasn’t too focused on the (national) record,” Osako said. “In the final 3, 4 kilometers I was thinking maybe I could do it.”

The Tokyo native earned ¥100 million ($925,000) in prize money from the Japan Industrial Track and Field Association and another ¥5 million ($46,000) from the organizers, both for breaking the national record.

Inoue, the reigning Asian Games gold medalist, was in the top group with the elite competitors in the first half, but faltered and was eventually passed by Osako. He finished 26th with a time of 2:09:34.

“I was determined to give everything I had,” Inoue said. “I had confidence (going in the race) and I just tried to keep up (with the top runners).”

Yuta Shitara, who set a national record during his silver-medal performance at the 2018 Tokyo Marathon, was 16th this year with 2:07:45.

The race began in near-ideal conditions with a temperature of 11.7 degrees Celsius. With the pacemakers setting a faster pace than usual, many runners finished with better times. Three Japanese competitors, including Osako, notched sub-2:07:00 times this year, something only six Japanese runners had ever done at any race in the past.

That was also the case in the women’s race, where the top two finishers surpassed the course record.

Israel’s Lonah Chemtai Salpeter earned the gold medal with 2:17:45 while Ethiopia’s Birhane Dibaba took silver in 2:18:35.

The previous course record of 2:19:47 was set by Kenya’s Sarah Chepchirchir in 2017.

Sutume Asefa Kebede, also of Ethiopia, was third in 2:20:30. Tenth-placed Haruka Yamaguchi (2:30:31) was the top finisher among Japanese entrants.

Several runners, including Osako, competed in Nike’s Air Zoom Alphafly Next% shoe, which has a full-length carbon fiber plate and Zoom AirPods to provide cushioning.

Asked how much the shoe aided his performance, Osako responded by saying that while he wasn’t sure and hadn’t had time to think about their effect, it was a positive to be able to wear shoes “with Nike’s technologies.”

“The race has just ended, but I want to think about how the shoe helped me out later,” said Osako, who was part of the Nike Oregon Project team shut down last year after its founder and coach Alberto Salazar was given a four-year doping ban.

Two of the three spots on Japan’s men’s and women’s teams for the Tokyo Games were filled through last September’s Marathon Grand Championship.

The final women’s berth will be decided on Sunday after the Nagoya Women’s Marathon.

The qualification time is set at 2:22:22 with Mizuki Matsuda currently in the lead for the spot.

The course record was also broken in both the men’s and women’s wheelchair races.

Tomoki Suzuki won gold in 1:21:52 in the men’s event while Tsubasa Kano crossed the finish line in 1:40:00 in the women’s race.

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