Thursday, July 2, 2009

From the Editor: Women's Marathoning and the Autumn Sky

http://sankei.jp.msn.com/sports/other/090702/oth0907020838001-n1.htm

an editorial by Sankei Newspapers Editor in Chief Ikuro Beppu
translated by Brett Larner and Mika Tokairin

Japanese women's marathon pioneer Nanae Nagata passed away on June 27, far too young at only 53 years old. More people probably remember her by her maiden name, Nanae Sasaki. In 1985 her wedding was one of the Yukan Fuji newspaper's big scoops.

On the day of her dowry ceremony Sasaki came to the house of her coach Kiyoshi Nakamura in Tokyo's Sendagaya neighborhood during her early morning training. As a young Yukan Fuji reporter I was there waiting outside the front door, and I said "Congratulations!" to her. Then the aging master appeared. Both were surprised that the media had found out about Sasaki's impending wedding, but as Nakamura admitted Sasaki inside he turned to me and gave a simple, "Enter." As I sat next to Sasaki, Nakamura implored me, at times stridently, at times gently, not to write about his athlete out of respect for her privacy. I understood his concern, but as a journalist I had responsibilities and I felt conflicted.

Nakamura proposed a compromise. "Do not write about this until after the dowry ceremonies are over." In the end I agreed that the article would be published the day after the end of Sasaki's ceremony. Nakamura also told me, "You must also promise not to say a word about Nanae Sasaki's actual wedding in tomorrow morning's edition." I promised, and I kept my word.

The year before, Nakamura had gone ahead with Sasaki to Los Angeles to prepare for the Olympic Games. In his absence, Nakamura's other star athlete Toshihiko Seko overtrained and began to have bloody urine. Out of fear for his health Seko took some Chinese herbal medicine a friend offered him, but then he began to worry whether or not he would fail a doping test. The stress tore him apart and, a nervous wreck, he finished only 14th at the Olympics. Nakamura told me afterwards, "If Seko had just taken the day off and had a few beers when he first had the problem everything would have been fine."

After the Olympics Nakamura wanted Sasaki to have "happiness as a woman." He also wanted Seko to "stand on his own two feet." Thus, the coach decided to select spouses for the two runners. When I interviewed him in May, 1985, the month of their dowry ceremonies, Nakamura told me, "Those two are all smiles these days." He also said this: "There is nothing more I can do for them." Those were the last words I ever heard the great man say.

The next month, Nakamura was killed in an accident during a fishing trip in Niigata Prefecture. When I think about what he had said to me and the timing it still gives me chills. The photo of Nakamura used at his memorial service was from the Yukan Fuji newspaper. When Nakamura himself had seen the picture he had said, "I want you to use this at my funeral." The photo was taken at the Jingugaien training loop as Nakamura watched Seko and Sasaki run, deep lines creasing his forehead and eyes as a smile exploded across his face.

In an interview when Sasaki was at her peak I asked Nakamura about her condition and he replied only, "Women's marathoning and the autumn sky." I think he was evoking the image of something volatile, changeable and unpredictable. Sasaki was the first pioneer of Japanese women's marathoning. In her wake Naoko Takahashi and Mizuki Noguchi scored Olympic gold medals, transforming the sport into one of Japan's most important. If I could talk to her one more time about her legacy and impact, I'm sure Sasaki would only shake her head with characteristic shyness and say, "No, no, I was nothing."

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