by Brett Larner
The new Nov. 15 Saitama International Marathon is the inheritor of the defunct Yokohama International Women's Marathon, itself the lesser offspring of the great Tokyo International Women's Marathon that folded under the pressure of the big new mass-participation Tokyo Marathon. At the time of the event's "relocation" to Yokohama JRN published an editorial questioning whether The Yokohama International Women's Marathon was an idea whose time had passed. History bore that out, unfortunately, as Yokohama was constantly beset with problems including its first winner Inga Abitova of Russia testing positive, a circuit course popular with spectators but unpopular with runners that underwent extensive changes, a date change into the next year in its second running, the welcoming back of Lithuanian Zivile Balciunaite within virtually days of the end of her doping suspension, and a growing sense of irrelevance highlighted by its winners and top Japanese women not being named to national teams including the scandalous omission of 2014 winner Tomomi Tanaka (Team Daiichi Seimei) from this year's Beijing World Championships team.
If the move from the central streets of Tokyo to the docklands and highway underpasses of Yokohama was symbolic of the event's loss of prestige, with absolutely no disrespect whatsoever intended to the people of Saitama, the move out to the near-rural northwestern suburbs can only be all the more so. The inaugural elite field bears this out. Most of Japan's small elite-only marathons follow a familiar construction, with one marquee athlete to generate media attention and legitimacy and a small cadre of internationals to meet IAAF label race requirements and provide targets for the top Japanese, who this year in Saitama will be going for places on the Rio de Janeiro Olympic team. Saitama has this setup covered. Aomori Yamada H.S. graduate Lucy Wangui Kabuu (Kenya) is the big name with a sub-2:20 best and a 2:20:21 in Dubai last January that puts her a mile ahead of the competition, at least. Five internationals at the 2:25 to 2:29 level including 2012 London Olympics bronze medalist Tatyana Arkhipova (Russia) are there for the Japanese to follow.
Which leads to the main problem. Although the field includes sub-2:20 great Yoko Shibui (Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo), now 36, in the interest of truth in advertising there is not a single Japanese woman in the field who has broken 2:30 since 2012. Zero. Not one. In an Olympic selection race. With the JAAF dictating a sub-2:22:30 standard for auto Olympic qualification. It's a dire situation. It would be great to see Remi Nakazato (Team Nitori), high-potential at the 2:24 level in her first few marathons and on the comeback from a cancer diagnosis last fall, or one of the other young 2:30-level women smash a major breakthrough, but realistically there is almost no chance that anyone from this field will make the Rio team with two other Olympic Section races left to determine the two team spots still available alongside Beijing World Championships 7th-placer Mai Ito (Team Otsuka Seiyaku).
Why is the Saitama field so weak? The level of Japanese women's marathoning has fallen, but it's not just that. The constant cutbacks in the corporate women's ekiden schedule, which this year is down to two races, means that Saitama's timing has more and more of an impact. It's about halfway between this weekend's National Corporate Women's Ekiden Qualifier and December's National Corporate Women's Ekiden, a problem for anyone training for Saitama and a problem for any team that needs them to turn around and run Nationals. And, maybe most significantly, other runners and coaches have to be looking at what happened to Tomomi Tanaka. The JAAF big heads have explicitly said, "We don't care if you win a selection race. We're only going to put you on the team if you ran the kind of race we want to see."
Run for time on an untested course in the middle of ekiden season and face a likelihood of still not making the team even if you win? Easy to see why the best people have said, "No thank you." The JAAF is setting the event up to fail. The elite segment of it, at least. Gone is the "Women's" part of the race name, as the elite
race is being tacked onto a new mass-participation race that includes
men and has the backing of Saitama's most famous citizen, Yuki Kawauchi. The mass race is bound to be a big success despite the conflict of date with the famed Ageo City Half Marathon held simultaneously in the neighboring town of Ageo. Never fear, though. A source involved with the Saitama International Marathon tells JRN that next year it is likely to move to the Nov. 23 national holiday date cleared up by the untimely demise this year of the International Chiba Ekiden, ensuring Ageo's survival on its traditional date. The circle of life.
The issues facing the Saitama International Marathon are real and have not changed for the better in the six years since JRN questioned whether the format of the Yokohama International Women's Marathon was still relevant. As an Olympic selection race the level of the Saitama field is an almost scandalous indication of its irrelevance. Yes, they still want to have a race, but this isn't the right way.
The obvious solution: make the Tokyo Marathon women's field, the best on Japanese soil but effectively closed to elite Japanese women, into a selection race. Make Saitama a U.S.-style Trials race for World Championships and Olympic men's and women's teams, with the existing selection races and top placings or times in IAAF label races qualifying Japanese runners for the Trials. Like in recent Kenyan practice, name the top five to the national teams with the final lineup to be settled in the summer based on evidenced fitness and whatever other criteria the JAAF wants to apply. The two not named to the team run the Hokkaido Marathon. Presumably the fittest three men and women will be on the national team, but, critically, the JAAF still has room in its final decision for the kind of mucky-muck it constructed the current system to enable. Everybody wins this way, even the broadcast sponsors who cling to the current system instead of doing something that would enhance its value.
The chances of that happening? Roughly the same as one of the Japanese women lining up in Saitama also being on the Rio start line. The Saitama International Marathon will no doubt be immaculately organized, Kabuu could well run a Japanese all-comers record if she were properly motivated, and the close level among the Japanese women promises an exciting race at its own level. But as an Olympic selection race, this is about as far from what you'd hope to see as could be.
1st Saitama International Marathon
click here for complete elite field listing
times listed are best within 2013-2015
Lucy Wangui Kabuu (Kenya) - 2:20:21 (Dubai 2015)
Atsede Baysa (Ethiopia) - 2:25:14 (London 2013)
Rebecca Kangogo Chesir (Kenya) - 2:25:22 (Dubai 2015)
Sylvia Jebiwot Kibet (Kenya) - 2:26:16 (Hamburg 2015)
Tatyana Petrova Arkhipova (Russia) - 2:28:42 (London 2015)
Askale Tafa (Ethiopia) - 2:29:37 (Dubai 2015)
Aki Odagiri (Japan/Tenmaya) - 2:30:24 (Nagoya Women's 2015)
Mizuho Nasukawa (Japan/Univ. Ent.) - 2:30:27 (Yokohama Women's 2013)
Rasa Drazdauskaite (Lithuania) - 2:30:32 (Zurich European Championships 2014)
Nastassia Ivanova (Belarus) - 2:30:45 (Tokyo 2013)
Agnieszka Mierzejewska (Poland) - 2:30:55 (Lodz 2015)
Asami Furuse (Japan/Kyocera) - 2:30:57 (Nagoya Women's 2013)
Yoko Shibui (Japan/Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo) - 2:31:15 (Nagoya Women's 2015)
Kaori Yoshida (Japan/Tokyo T&F Assoc.) - 2:33:14 (Sapporo 2015)
Remi Nakazato (Japan/Nitori) - 2:33:24 (London 2013)
Winfridah Mochache Kebaso (Kenya/Nitori) - 2:45:00 (Hokkaido 2015)
(c) 2015 Brett Larner
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