Ranked #1 thanks to his 2:06:54 breakthrough at February's Tokyo Marathon, Hiroto Inoue became the first Japanese man to win an Asian Games marathon since 1986 as he took the first gold medal in athletics at the Jakarta Asian Games in a sprint finish in 2:18:22.
Despite the hot and humid conditions, 26˚C and 79% humidity at the start and climbing from there, it was a pretty frustrating race to watch, to be honest, with a 4:00 first km and a low-2:20s projected finishing time until well into the second half. On paper the only real competition for Inoue and teammate Hayato Sonoda were the African-born Bahraini pair Abdi Abdo and El Hassan El Abbassi, but despite that the two Japanese runners stayed tucked into the pack as Japan-based Mongolian national record holder Ser-Od Bat-Ochir made a few attempts to get it in gear.
Bat-Ochir did succeed in shaking it down to a pack of 8, but it took a surprise visit from Thailand's Tony Payne, who surged up from far back to overtake the leaders at around 25 km, to really get things moving. After 2:19 man Payne went to the front Sonoda responded with the first real sustained push of the race, leading all the way to 37 km and getting the projected finish time under 2:20 for the first time with a 1:55:57 split at 35 km.
Last time around in Incheon Japan's Kohei Matsumura and Yuki Kawauchi fell victim to a passive race strategy against Kenyan-born Bahraini Ali Hassan Mahboob, leaving it to a track finish and getting duly outkicked. Up this time against 21-year-old Ethiopian Bahraini Abdo, who ran 2:08:32 earlier this year in Rome, and the Moroccan-born El Abbassi, gold medalist in the 10000 m in Incheon, Inoue steadfastly refused to take the initiative. As the pack shrank down to just the Japanese and Bahraini pairs and China's solo Bujie Duo it looked all but certain that it would come down to a replay this time around.
Without warning, Abdo dropped back from the lead group. El Abbasssi, who never looked comfortable and constantly fidgeted in a way reminiscent of his native countryman, two-time world champion Jaouad Gharib of Morocco, motioned for Abdo to come back. Abdo answered but couldn't sustain his position, dropping back again and then out of the race to leave four in contention for the medals.
With 5 km to go El Abbassi made his move, surging away from Sonoda and Duo with only Inoue in tow. And with that it was down to two separate races, El Abbassi and Inoue for gold and Sonoda and Duo for bronze. Both Inoue and El Abbassi made a few small feints over the last 5 km, but no real move came until coming off the back corner of the track when both men launched their last sprints. On the home straight El Abbassi tried to pass on the inside, putting up his right hand to push Inoue aside but stumbling and losing a stride.
Inoue crossed the line first, both men credited with the same time but Inoue bringing the gold back to Japan and Asia. "I was pretty confident about my last kick," he said post-race, having set a new 5000 m PB of 13:38.44 this spring post-Tokyo breakthrough. "I knew if it came down to that I'd win." The Bahraini team was reported to have filed a protest that Inoue had fouled El Abbassi in the home straight, but the referee dismissed their claims. Judge for yourself.
【バーレン 難癖？！】— Rolows (@Rolows_13) August 25, 2018
Elhassan Elabbassi pic.twitter.com/GWb4xIyaHc
Back in the bronze race, Sonoda and Duo battled each other over the last 5 km, but despite a difference of 4 minutes in their bests it was Duo who broke free to take the last medal in 2:18:48, a strong performance in a race where he looked comfortable and in control almost the entire way. Sonoda was 4th in 2:19:04. With his only previous international marathon experience being a 2:23:29 win at the 2016 Austin Marathon Sonoda commented, "I really felt what the level of competition is like at the world level. Well, it's only Asia, but still. 4th is disappointing, but the experience of running in this kind of heat is going to help me grow."
Out of the four current main contenders for the Tokyo 2020 team Inoue is generally considered the one with the best chance of going all the way. A win in similar conditions today solidifies that position and has to be a boost of confidence after his failed race at the London World Championships last summer. It's pretty likely the plan was to do the absolute minimum necessary to win, to get the experience running in heat and humidity without overdoing it and suffering some longterm after-effects. But Inoue's tactics here cut it a little too close, and if he hopes to succeed two years from now against a tougher crowd in the Tokyo Olympics Inoue is going to have bring back the assertiveness he showed in Tokyo in February. As a practice run today was a success, but as a race it just won't cut it.
Jakarta Asian Games Men's MarathonJakarta, Indonesia, 8/25/18
1. Hiroto Inoue (Japan) - 2:18:22
2. El Hassan El Abbassi (Bahrain) - 2:18:22
3. Bujie Duo (China) - 2:18:48
4. Hayato Sonoda (Japan) - 2:19:04
5. Ser-Od Bat-Ochir (Mongolia) - 2:23:42
6. Kang Bom Ri (North Korea) - 2:23:42
7. Guojian Dong (China) - 2:23:55
8. Tony Ah Thit Payne (Thailand) - 2:24:52
9. Andrew Petrov (Uzbekistan) - 2:26:52
10. Chol Pak (North Korea) - 2:29:07
DNF - Abdi Abdo (Bahrain)
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