Friday, November 13, 2009

The Yokohama International Women's Marathon - An Idea Whose Time Has Passed?

an editorial by Brett Larner

The first Yokohama International Women's Marathon takes place this Sunday, Nov. 15. With a small field limited to women under 3:15, an innovative circuit course designed for fast times, a live nationwide TV broadcast, the defending Olympic gold and silver medalists and one of the best-performing domestic women of the year on the starting line organizers and media have hailed Yokohama, the replacement for the Tokyo International Women's Marathon, as a continuation of a proud tradition. Amid the fanfare one question has gone unanswered. Simply, why?

When the Tokyo International Women's Marathon (TIWM) began in 1979 it was the world's first IAAF-sanctioned women-only marathon. Women lacked the same opportunities as men to race in large, competitive marathons, not least the Olympics, and Japanese women's marathoning was in a fledgling state. Following the model of the elite Japanese men's marathons such as Fukuoka International, Biwako Mainichi and Tokyo International, TIWM and later the Osaka International Ladies' Marathon (OILM) and Nagoya International Women's Marathon (NIWM) went a long way toward correcting these deficiencies.

Fast-forward thirty years and it's a different world. Competitive fields of women from around the world race for large prize purses at all the world's top marathons, often with a separate, early start to ensure the race is among women only. There have been seven Olympic gold medals earned by women. Japanese women are among the very best, with four straight Olympic medals, two of them gold, ten World Championships medals, again two gold, the world's first sub-2:20, and more sub-2:20 women than any other country. Where TIWM in its early days attracted the world's best and gave the developing domestic women something to aspire to, in later years it had difficulty competing with big city, big money races such as New York and Chicago to bring in the biggest names and became more of a showcase for the best Japanese women to beat one marquee foreigner, something good for the sponsors and for nationalism but not necessarily for the athletes. Lesser-known foreign runners who had a good day were virtually guaranteed an indefinite invitation in following years, giving the races something of a 'usual suspects' character. As in the big three men's marathons, it became somewhat unusual to see the top Japanese women race against their best overseas competitors outside the TIWM-OILM-NIWM circuit.

The big change came in 2007 with the dawn of the Tokyo Marathon. Tokyo was Japan's first big city marathon along the same lines as New York, London and Boston, a new event starting from scratch with a massive public field and a route which covered part of the historic out-and-back Tokyo International Marathon and TIWM course. The date chosen for the event was that of the men's Tokyo International Marathon and that event's organizers joined forces and incorporated their race into the new one, giving the Tokyo Marathon an elite men's field but no competitive women. The TIWM held on for a year but following the 2007 edition the Tokyo Police Department, which issues the road closure permits for races, threw its support behind the new Tokyo Marathon. After its 2008 edition and thirty years the TIWM no longer had a home.

And here is where the question of why came to the surface. The TIWM's sponsors announced after a time that they would stage a new women-only elite race in Yokohama in 2009. The race would follow the general format of the old TIWM, with a field of foreign and elite domestic women up front, a small class of competitive amateurs, the same race date, and the same secretive financial structure. The new event seemed geared more for speed than TIWM, with a relatively flat four-loop circuit course, the first in Japan's elite marathon world, and far tougher standards for the amateur women. Ironically, like TIWM losing its place to the Tokyo Marathon, the new Yokohama race meant the end of the classic Yokohama International Women's Ekiden.

Soon afterwards the Tokyo Marathon announced that in 2009 it would add its own world-class women's field, sharing the same course as the elite men and with a large, public prize purse. The pre-emptive move put Tokyo into line with modern international standards and the field they brought in, both in terms of foreign and domestic talent, surpassed that of the NIWM and was on par with the field at the OILM. Although Yokohama had the opportunity to do something special to truly celebrate its entry into women's marathoning the elite field it eventually announced barely lived up to Tokyo's. Despite the presence of the defending Olympic gold and silver medalists Constantina Dita and Catherine Ndereba, most of the foreign invitees including those two medalists were again the aging usual suspects and two of the five domestic women in the field were Tokyo repeats.

With Tokyo as a rival in many senses, the Yokohama International Women's Marathon's sponsors and some in the industry have represented it as the 'continuation' of the TIWM. Consider these facts, some of which have been already mentioned: The Tokyo International Marathon and TIWM shared the same course, an out-an-back with a famous hill. The Tokyo Marathon uses part of this course and is accepted as the 'continuation' of the Tokyo International Marathon. Tokyo's women's field uses the same course as the men. Yokohama, although sharing the same sponsors and some organizers with TIWM, is on a completely different type of course in a different city in a different prefecture (think 'state') under the jurisdiction of a different bureaucratic organization, the Kanagawa Athletics Federation. At last year's final TIWM a course marshall with the Tokyo Athletics Federation told JRN how sad he was that after years of helping out with the TIWM he would no longer be able to take part because of the jurisdictional change. If New York or Boston cut off their marathons for whatever reason and the sponsors relocated to Newark or Providence and those who have worked and volunteered for years were no longer a part, would they in any meaningful sense be the 'same' races? As the great jazz musician and composer Anthony Braxton once told me, "It's not what is, it's what is this isness?"

So the questions arise: what is the purpose of the Yokohama International Women's Marathon? What are the organizers' goals? Faced with the possibility of doing something innovative and exciting why try to sell a new race as the continuation of something which was replaced by an event more in keeping with modern developments in the sport? Yokohama seems to be intended as a fast, competitive event designed to bring domestic women's racing to a new level, but if organizers cannot compete financially with bigger, richer marathons including the Tokyo Marathon then can they achieve this end, particularly in times of economic trouble? Is the small, elite-only domestic race format serving the development of Japan's marathoners better than going overseas to swing with the big names? Is it serving them more than it is serving the race's sponsors? Is an elite women-only marathon even relevant in an era when the same opportunity is the norm in the world's largest marathons? Some of the same problems affect the elite men's race circuit as the Biwako Mainichi Marathon has struggled to remain viable in the era of the Tokyo Marathon, going so far as to make a sketchy claim to Japan's first IAAF gold label in an effort to attract a sponsor to keep it alive.

So, while it's certainly to be hoped that the Yokohama International Women's Marathon will be a success, providing an outstanding opportunity for women Japanese and foreign alike to excel and highlighting their achievements, the issues facing the event are manifold. Not least among them is that of its reason for being. JRN will be there to cover the event and cheer it on (go Kiyoko!), and overseas readers will have the chance to watch TV Asahi's live broadcast on Nov. 15 from 12:00 to 2:55 p.m. thanks to the Keyhole TV software available here. For more details on the Yokohama elite field click here. Here's to a great race, and to organizers building the Yokohama International Women's Marathon into something meaningful, viable, and lasting.

(c) 2009 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

4 comments:

shibuyaboy said...

Naoko Takahashi is on TV Asahi right now ^^

Kevin said...

They better break Yoko Shibui's time of 2:23:42 or else their performance is crap. What happen to shibui? I'm so dissapointed in her for not running anymore. I think she's retiring.

TokyoRacer said...

Shibui has been injured for a long time. Can't remember what the injury is....
I guess the massive amounts of distance they run just takes its toll eventually on the top Japanese women...Takahashi, Noguchi, Shibui.

Anonymous said...

does anyone have a link to the results?