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Cause to Reflect at Saitama International Marathon

by Brett Larner

In wet conditions on an untested course full of twists, turns and ups and downs, Ethiopian Atsede Baysa scored an easy win at the first running of the Saitama International Marathon, pulling away from the rest of the small front group after 30 km to open a lead of nearly a kilometer on the way to a 2:25:44 finish.  Kaori Yoshida (Runners Pulse) ran down Kenyan Rebecca Kangogo Chesir to take 2nd in a PB 2:28:43, putting her name into contention, distantly, for the Rio Olympic team.  Former national record holder Yoko Shibui (Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo) came up short of her Olympic hopes, 4th in 2:31:06 after running up front until late in the race.

The race itself will be covered in more detail elsewhere, but as an inaugural event, as an Olympic selection race, and in other aspects, Saitama brought up a lot of cause for reflection.
  • A step down from its Tokyo International Women's Marathon and Yokohama International Marathon predecessor, Saitama joined March's Nagoya Women's Marathon in abandoning the elite women-only format, tacking the women's race onto the front of a mixed mass-participation race won in 2:18:50 by Yusuke Kodama (Team Comodi Iida).  Only January's Osaka International Women's Marathon keeps the traditional format, but even it is held alongside a mixed mass-participation half marathon.  Meanwhile the modern Tokyo Marathon features excellent women's fields effectively closed to top Japanese women due to it not being a national team selection race as it is for men.  Is there a viable future for the elite-only format, especially for women?
  • Along with the Istanbul Marathon, Saitama had the distinction of being the first race to block participation by a Russian athlete following the IAAF's suspension of the Russian Federation.  London Olympics bronze medalist Tatyana Arkhipova took part in Friday's pre-race press conference but was barred from the race on Saturday.  Despite initially only saying Arkhipova was a DNS, to their credit, mid-race TV announcers did explain the IAAF's decision and its impact on Arkhipova.  No mention, however, of her representation by Andrey Baranov, who also represents a number of Russian women who won Japanese marathons only to have their results stricken later after drug suspensions, or questioning of how and why Arkhipova was there to begin with given Baranov's history of burning Japanese races.  That is a very good question that needs discussion, particularly with regard to the role of the Japan-side person or persons responsible for repeatedly bringing him back.  Likewise, no mention of the previous drug suspension of another Eastern European woman in the field, Rasa Drazdauskaite (Lithuania).  Altogether their presence suggested a lack of seriousness in Japan with regard to the current major problem of doping worldwide that contradicts the country's reputation for clean sport.  It's easy to write that off to naivete, a tendency to view problems overseas as something distantly far away and nothing to do with Japan, but there's little doubt that the Japan-side people bringing Baranov and crew know exactly what the situation is and are putting personal relationships and the letter of the rule ahead of its spirit, appearances and current worldwide attitudes.
  • And in that regard Yoshida's PB finish for 2nd and top Japanese in an Olympic selection race is something that should be a prompt for the deepest reflection.  Yoshida is the only Japanese athlete to have ever been publicly banned for a positive drug test following an EPO positive at the 2012 Honolulu Marathon.  Every person I have ever talked to about it in the Japanese industry believes it really was an accident, but the fact remains that she has a positive drug test behind her.  No direct mention of it was made on the race broadcast, just a few sympathetically-toned mentions that she had faced the unhappiness of not being able to run for a long time, as if she had been injured..  Less than a year after the end of a drug suspension a 34-year-old runner comes back and knocks over a minute off her 5-year-old PB.  If she were Russian nobody would take her seriously, but instead the media looked entirely the other way to a degree that makes you ponder the image of Japanese athletics as spotless.  There is almost no chance Yoshida will be selected for the Rio team off just a 2:28, but how should people feel about it if she is?  Given the fact that the Russian suspension is making even mainstream Japanese news will there be any connection made whatsoever to Yoshida, any recognition that doping is not just another distant overseas problem but one that exists right here at home?  It was a lost opportunity today.

1st Saitama International Marathon
Saitama, 11/15/15
click here for official results

Women
1. Atsede Baysa (Ethiopia) - 2:25:44
2. Kaori Yoshida (Japan/Runners Pulse) - 2:28:43 - PB
3. Rebecca Kangogo Chesir (Kenya) - 2:29:11
4. Yoko Shibui (Japan/Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo) - 2:31:06
5. Winfredah Kebaso (Kenya/Team Nitori) - 2:32:08 - PB
6. Meselech Melkamu (Ethiopia) - 2:33:59
7. Nastassia Ivanova (Belarus) - 2:35:23
8. Aki Otagiri (Japan/Team Tenmaya) - 2:36:29
9. Remi Nakazato (Japan/Team Nitori) - 2:40:31
10. Tomomi Sawahata (Sawahatas) - 2:43:26
DNS - Tatyana Arkhipova (Russia)

Men
1. Yusuke Kodama (Team Comodi Iida) - 2:18:50

(c) 2015 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

Comments

CK said…
Back in about 2000 or 2001 a glossy A5 size advertisement flyer turned up in my letter-box (apartment in Saitama Prefecture), advertising mail-order HGH, and evidently targeting the slimming/gym-frequenter market. I decided to do some simple ad-hoc research and showed it to a few (male) running friends (shimin level, but solid runners). They didn't know what HGH was, and weren't interested anyway, dismissing my concerns as overly extreme and an issue which didn't affect Japanese athletes. A few years later I showed it to an ex-jitsugyodan racketsport player (female) who informed me that several friends - both casual friends and pro-players - knew that it was an effective dieting aid and she believed that it was not so uncommon. Unfortunately I never got to the bottom of that conversation - I made the mistake of mentioning its PED status and was never subsequently "welcome" to discuss it again. Of course none of that is directly connected to the Saitama Marathon. But the combination of Baranov an his athletes (year after year), the case of Yoshida, the ongoing media non-questioning and an inaugural Marathon in Saitama kind of caused me to remember...
yuza said…
Well written Brett.

I would like to give Yoshida the benefit of the doubt, but this performance is making it harder for me to do so.

The coverage (lack thereof) regarding her ban is unsurprising. This is not a problem Japan's media only suffers from. Doping is something that only happens in other countries. At the last World Championships most media outlets covering the event typified this way of thinking.

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