Japans silver-label marathons

2008-03-17

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Japan marathons didn't win the gold this year, but the International Association of Athletics Federation gave silver labels to 10 of its annual meets - the second highest number of any country. What's up with that? Apparently, Japan has the Midas touch for organizing races but not for luring foreign athletes and media coverage.

The IAAF's first annual gold awards went to a dozen big names such as the Flora London Marathon, Beijing International Marathon, Xiamen International Marathon and Vodafone Delhi Half Marathon for drawing more international coverage and elite athlete participation. Japan's sliver label winners, media reports, fell relatively short in these areas but were nonetheless cited for their high organizing standards.

Those that took the silver are: Osaka International Ladies Marathon, Ohme Marathon, Tokyo Marathon, Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon, Kagawa Marugame Half Marathon, Nagoya International Women's Marathon, Nagano Olympic Commemorative Marathon, Hokkaido Marathon, Tokyo International Women's Marathon and Fukuoka International Open Marathon Championships.

Given the quality and quantity of Japan races, the string of awards is perhaps only a surprise in that none were gold labels. It's not just the Tokyo Marathon, whose elite and mass races for men, women and wheelchair categories draw up to 30,000 runners every February. Nor can such dismay be solely over gold not going to the Tokyo International Women's Marathon which, set for its 30th meet on Nov. 16, is far from being an unknown among marathoners and fans alike.

Six of last year's Boston Marathon top finishers set their sites on the finish line of last month's Ohme Marathon, including the likes of Peter Gilmore, Luke Humphrey, Chad Johnson, Kyle O'Brien, Brian Sell and Clint Verran. It's no fluke. An exchange program between the Ohme race and the Boston race, which did get an IAAF gold label, has been bringing elite runners here since 1976 when Bill Rodgers won Ohme, and Tom Fleming placed second. Other elites in Ohme include Miki Gorman who took the Boston race in 1974 and 1977 and Greg Meyer who won both races in 1983.

Countering the argument of lax international media coverage, however, is not as easy. The Osaka International Ladies Marathon every January has been going strong since 1982, also drawing elites from the world around. But for all its local corporate-media backing (Kansai Telecasting Corp., Fuji News Network, Sankei Shimbun Co., Osaka Broadcasting Corp.) it too seems to lack the overseas coverage needed to grab IAAF gold. Perhaps Japan media's sports-club-like marathon ownership - real or perceived - is to blame.

Despite the Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon's English-Japanese bilingual online registration (a rarity for marathons here), it did undergo a name change in honor of co-organizer Mainichi Newspapers in 1962. So what's in a name? It's apparently sponsorship more than the logic of overseas media ties or domestic location. From its start in 1946 the race was dubbed simply "Lake Biwa Marathon" until moving to the scenic lake 14 years later - despite its Osaka location.

To be fair, this men's-only March race has more small incentives for overseas runners than most here. They include a late December registration deadline (compared to about six months in advance for typical Japan meets) and waving the entry fee for competitors from abroad. But like the Kagawa Marugame Half Marathon, which drew national broadcasts on Feb. 3 - from OHK in Okayama and TSS in Hiroshima, to EBC in Ehime and KTV throughout Kansai - nere a word of this fellow silver-label race was likely to be found on overseas airwaves. (Faux pas in the Kagawa race's online results reporting couldn't have helped its IAAF rating, either.)

Marathons less popular on foreign shores, such as the Nagoya International Women's Marathon, are as worthy of note as they are their hard-earned silver labels. The Nagoya race registration is as inviting as any of Japan's top meets, if not more so, with online details in English as well as Japanese explicitly outlining year-in-advance qualifying times and post-race testing for doping. The annual early March competition may outstrip most in that runners can register as late as one month before the race.

This year's April 20 Nagano Olympic Commemorative Marathon is the proverbial new kid on the block. It invites the first 7,000 qualifiers, regardless of when they register, in 10-year-age categories from 18 to above 70, to honor the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympic Games by crossing the finish line in the Olympic Memorial Stadium. However, the choice nugget, be it runners' gold or IAAF silver, takes advantage of cooler northern climates to put Hokkaido on the global marathon map.

The Hokkaido Marathon in August has been boasting Japan's only major mid-summer race since 1987. Held in the prefecture's capital of Sapporo, the meet draws more than 5,000 athletes, including elites selected to represent Japan in the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games in Barcelona and Atlanta, respectively. It's a sweet scenic run with organizers extending a comparatively unprecedented international online invite in Chinese and Korean, as well as English and Japanese.

Similar to the Nagano race, Hokkaido Marathon's registration deadline is based on 5,500-person quota, making it an ideal last-minute off-season run. The drawback is that while the Japan Association of Athletics Federations course is a kosher qualification for other local meets, the course for non-JAAF registrants isn't. JAAF - or even IAAF - rulings aside, however, there's always a silver lining behind the cloud. When it comes to the Land of the Rising Sun, it's the golden opportunities its races offer.



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