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A Preview of the Japanese Women`s Olympic Marathon Team Selection Race Series

by Brett Larner

The second phase of the qualification process for Japan`s Beijing Olympic marathon team gets underway this Sunday with the Tokyo International Women`s Marathon. Unlike the American one race, one chance selection system, the Japanese selection process includes four races to determine the three team members and alternates. In this, the first of a series of articles to appear over the next four months, we will preview the selection process, events, and major contenders for the women`s Olympic marathon team.

The Selection Process
In theory the top Japanese finisher in each of the selection races will be named to the team, with an overall win in one of the selection races almost guaranteeing a spot. In reality, however, the JAAF takes into account factors including finish time, conditions, and the presence of foreign competition in making their decisions on national team membership, often with surprising and controversial results. Expectations for the team are extremely high with the pressure brought by Japanese women marathoners holding two consecutive Olympic gold medals, many World Championships medals, the first ever sub-2:20 women`s marathon, and three of the eight women to have run sub-2:20.

Osaka World Championships Marathon – Sept. 2, 2007
The women`s selection process began in September with the 2007 IAAF World Championships Marathon. The top Japanese woman in that race was guaranteed a spot on the Beijing team provided she finished in the medals. 2003 Edmonton World Championships Marathon silver medalist, Athens Olympic Marathon fifth-place finisher and 2006 Tokyo International Women`s Marathon winer Reiko Tosa (Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo) came through in the heat, winning a bronze medal and securing one of the three team positions. This left two places to be decided between three races, the Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya International Women`s Marathons.

Tokyo International Women`s Marathon – Nov. 18, 2007
Tokyo will be perhaps the highest-pressure race of the three. With two selection races following Tokyo, its leaders cannot afford to run just for the win but must also target a fast time. This is tough given the challenging Tokyo course which includes a long uphill from the 36 to 40 km points. The field includes the two all-time fastest Japanese women; unless both run astounding times the runner-up will probably have to run again in Osaka or Nagoya to make the Olympic team. Contenders for the win include:

Mizuki Noguchi: 2:19:12, Berlin `05, national record; gold medalist, Athens Olympics
The favorite to win the race, Noguchi is returning from a two-year absence after repeated accidents and injuries. Noguchi plans to save her attack for the 40 km point.
Yoko Shibui: 2:19:41, Berlin `04 (former national record)
Shibui is widely known for her aggressive early stage running but has struggled in the final stages in recent marathons. She will probably be the one pushing the pace.
Hiromi Ominami: 2:23:26, Berlin `04; winner, Rotterdam `07
Another aggressive starter, Ominami was runner-up in Berlin during Shibui`s national record run. She is strong enough to stage an upset if the two favorites struggle.
Selina Kosgei - Kenya: 2:23:22, Berlin `06
Runner-up in last year`s Berlin, Kosgei could steal the win if Noguchi and Shibui falter. A win by Kosgei or another non-Japanese entrant such as Lithuania`s Zivile Balciunaite or Italy`s Bruna Genovese would reduce the top Japanese woman`s chances of making the Olympic team.

Osaka International Women`s Marathon – Jan. 27, 2008
Osaka will likely feature second-tier runners who did not want to run against Noguchi and Shibui but still have the ability to run times in the low 2:20`s. The 2007 edition of Osaka produced the three fastest Japanese qualifying times for the Osaka World Championships; the top two finishers were selected for the team and the third was named alternate. The course is less hilly than Tokyo but has many twists and turns. Runners who have declared their intention to run so far include:

Naoko Sakamoto: 2:21:51, Osaka `03; 7th, Athens Olympics
The fifth-fastest Japanese woman of all time, Sakamoto has solid international credentials and is considered a major contender for the team.
Yuri Kano: 2:24:23, Osaka `07; winner, Hokkaido `07
Kano`s debut at age 28 at this year`s Osaka makes her a latecomer to marathoning by Japanese standards. She missed making the Osaka World Championships team by only four seconds, won the Hokkaido marathon instead, and is considered on the rise.

Applications for Osaka close Dec. 12, so some of the uncommitted runners listed below may sign on.

Nagoya International Women`s Marathon – Mar. 9, 2008
The fastest of the three courses, Nagoya is also likely to be the most desperate of the races as it the last opportunity to make the team and all competitors will know exactly what time they will need to run to stand a chance. Major contenders who ran poorly in Tokyo or Osaka will likely be back for a second try. Declared runners at this time include:

Kiyoko Shimahara: 2:26:14, Hokkaido `05; silver medal, Asian Games `06; 6th place, Osaka World Championships
Shimahara does not have the fast times of many of her competitors but has a proven record in international championship races during hot conditions and would be a likely pick for the team if she finished well in Nagoya.
Yasuko Hashimoto: 2:25:21, Nagoya `05; winner, Berlin `03
Hashimoto is a fixture in the Japanese distance running scene. She struggled in the Osaka World Championships and finished 23rd.
Hitomi Niiya: 2:31:01, Tokyo `07
The winner of the women`s division of the inaugural Tokyo Marathon (no connection to the Tokyo International Women`s Marathon), Niiya is notable in that she is only 18, Tokyo was her debut marathon, and she is coached by Yoshio Koide whose former star pupil was Naoko Takahashi.

Undeclared Runners
Several other major contenders have not yet declared whether they will run Osaka or Nagoya. The most notable among these include:
Naoko Takahashi: 2:19:46 (former world record), Berlin `01; gold medalist, Sydney Olympics
Takahashi, or Q-chan, is a beloved figure in Japan. She is in the last stages of her career but has pulled off several comebacks in the past. Choosing to avoid facing Noguchi and Shibui in Tokyo gives her a realistic chance of making the team if she runs well in either Osaka or, more likely, Nagoya.
Kayoko Fukushi: 15 km world record holder; 5000 m and 1/2 marathon national record holder
Fukushi is by far the greatest wildcard in the Beijing Olympic selection race series. She is widely considered the next sub-2:20 Japanese woman but has expressed a lack of interest in moving up to the full marathon. She has committed to running her debut marathon in the spring but will delay announcing which race until after the All-Japan Jitsugyodan Women`s Marathon on Dec. 16.
Yumiko Hara and Mari Ozaki, who finished 1-2 in the `07 Osaka International Women`s Marathon in the fastest times by a Japanese woman so far this year but performed poorly in the Osaka World Championships, have not yet announced their intentions. Veteran Harumi Hiroyama has also been silent concerning her plans.

Scenarios
A wide range of scenarios for the Olympic team selection is possible. If Noguchi and Shibui both run under Eri Yamaguchi`s 1999 course record of 2:22:12 and the winning times in Osaka and Nagoya are unremarkable then it is possible they would be selected over the winners of the other races. Conversely, if Kosgei beats both Noguchi and Shibui and Japanese runners win Osaka and Nagoya then it is possible neither Tokyo runner will be selected regardless of time. History has shown that the JAAF rarely play favorites in selecting the Olympic marathon teams, particularly when it comes to the women marathoners. Results are the main consideration, so it remains a wait and see situation until March.

The next article in this series will preview the men`s Olympic selection race series. Future articles will trace the history of the Japanese selection process through the last four Olympic Games.



(c) 2007 Brett Larner
All Rights Reserved

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