Former Olympic marathoner Mara Yamauchi has “mixed feelings” as Japan gets set to host the Tokyo Games under extraordinary circumstances due to the pandemic.

Still, she believes that athletes will not be affected by the restrictions brought about by COVID-19 and the lack of spectators at the majority of Olympic venues. The world’s biggest sporting event will be held with Tokyo under a state of emergency.

“When I was competing in a marathon, I was just so focused,” the two-time Olympian told The Japan Times in a recent online interview from her residence in London. “I often didn’t pay attention to what’s going on. Often after the race, people would say to me, ‘Oh, I cheered you at this place or that place. And I have no memory of hearing it or seeing them because I was just concentrating on running.”

The 47-year-old, who moved back to Britain in 2011 after living in Japan for a combined nine years as a diplomat as well as an athlete, is a freelance writer, running coach and television commentator for Eurosport.

Yamauchi, who competed in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, served as a commentator at the 2019 World Championships in Doha, where the marathon and race walks were held around midnight to beat the severe heat and with almost no spectators on the roadsides.

She recalled that the runners “still performed well” despite the unusual environment.

“And I think during this pandemic, we’ve seen in many different sports competitions going ahead without fans, or very few fans,” she said. “And of course, it’s not kind of normal, what we have all known and enjoyed as a sport. Sport is with fans watching. But I think everybody just accepts that this is what has to happen in the circumstances.

“And I think if you’re an athlete, you’re primarily there to go and compete and do your best. You’re not there to enjoy the adoration of fans. Of course, it’s nice. But if you’re really focused on your performance, you should be able to produce a great performance even if nobody is there.”

Yamauchi has a similar sentiment for the athletes and other representatives who are not able to mingle with others during the two-week extravaganza. While she said “it’s a shame,” Yamauchi said it should not be a significant problem for Olympic participants.

Former Olympic marathoner Mara Yamauchi has “mixed feelings” as Japan gets set to host the Tokyo Games under extraordinary circumstances due to the pandemic. | MARK CLINTON JOHNSON
Former Olympic marathoner Mara Yamauchi has “mixed feelings” as Japan gets set to host the Tokyo Games under extraordinary circumstances due to the pandemic. | MARK CLINTON JOHNSON

“The main reason athletes go to the Olympics is to compete. Hopefully, win a medal, whatever,” said Yamauchi, who holds the second fastest record for a British woman in the marathon at 2 hours, 23 minutes, 12 seconds, behind only former world record holder Paula Radcliffe. “It’s not a holiday. You don’t go there to dance around and make friends. You go there to compete and perform. If you’re lucky enough that your event is early on in the schedule, then you can relax, make friends, and have a good time. But it’s not a holiday, it’s a competition. And many athletes devote years, decades of their lives to this one day or one occasion.”

Yamauchi noted she was fortunate to be able to compete in an Olympics held in her home country in 2012, even though the outcome was far from satisfactory.

Four years after she finished sixth at the Beijing Games, Yamauchi withdrew from the competition at about the 10 kilometer mark with a foot injury.

“I was able to compete in an Olympics in (my) own country and it was a very rare and special thing for an athlete because most athletes only compete for a limited number of years,” Yamauchi said. “And it’s just pure chance whether the Olympics comes to your country during that time. So for me, I had that special opportunity, which was fantastic.”

Yamauchi, who knows Japan well from her time living here, feels sympathetic toward Japanese citizens who would have been able to cherish the rare opportunity to have the Summer Games on home soil.

“The best years of my career as an elite marathon runner were in Japan. I benefited massively from being there competing against Japanese athletes, competing in Japanese races. The women’s marathon in Japan is absolutely at the top of the world,” said Yamauchi, who will commentate on the marathon and race walk competitions during the Tokyo Games. “And that was really unforgettable for me and an incredible experience. So all that considered, I think the fact that it’s in Tokyo is really special.”

Yamauchi says she was “thrilled” when she found out that Tokyo would host the games, noting that Japanese people “absolutely love their sport.” Given all the restrictions on the games due to COVID-19, Yamauchi laments that the Olympics couldn’t be held as they were intended.

“Japanese people are incredibly generous and hospitable to outsiders — omotenashi. So in all those respects, I thought it would be fantastic. And it’s really unfortunate that this pandemic arrived when it did.”

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