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Friday, Feb. 16, 2007

Tokyo gets set for weekend marathon

Traffic to be rerouted as 30,000 runners take to the capital's streets

Staff writer

Despite the brutal traffic and jostling crowds that will accompany Sunday's inaugural Tokyo Marathon 2007, Takaaki Hirai sees the event as an occasion for celebration and remembrance.

"I used to run marathons way back when I was in college. I look forward to seeing the hustle of the runners," said the 73-year-old Tokyo native.

As chairman of Asakusa's Kokusai Dori "Beat Street" storekeepers union, Hirai, who owns a pet shop in the district, will be dealing with some of the 100,000 spectators expected to pack the area and cheer the runners on Sunday.

"We've had many meetings with local police to prepare for the event," Hirai said. "Asakusa handles 500,000 visitors during Sanja Matsuri festivals and 1.3 million during the fireworks in the summer. There are no worries."

Eager to promote itself as a city capable of handling large-scale sports events, Tokyo, chosen as Japan's candidate for the 2016 Olympics, will launch Asia's biggest marathon this Sunday, with 30,000 runners streaming through the streets.

The event is so popular that the metro government and its co-organizer, Japan Association of Athletics Federations, had to draw lots among the 95,000 applicants.

The new annual event was proposed by Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, who responded to calls by marathon enthusiasts to hold a major race on the streets by merging two of the capital's largest marathons, the Tokyo International Marathon and the Tokyo City Road Race.

Amateurs and professional runners actually have two events to choose from: a 10-km race and a full marathon that tracks through major tourist sights.

Guest runners include Vanderlei De Lima from Brazil, who won a bronze medal at the 2000 Athens Olympics despite being attacked by a spectator during the race. Yuko Arimori, a two-time Olympic medalist at Barcelona and Atlanta, will also take part.

The race will start at 9:10 a.m. at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office in Shinjuku Ward. Runners will pass Yasukuni Shrine and the Imperial Palace on their way to Tokyo Tower. After heading north to Asakusa, the course runs through Ginza before reaching the finish line at Tokyo Big Sight in Ariake, Koto Ward. Runners have till 4:10 p.m. to complete the course.

The Metropolitan Police Department will take full control of Tokyo's streets Sunday.

Some parts of the city will see restrictions from as early as 6:30 a.m. and traffic will be stopped for over six hours in many areas, including in front of Tokyo Big Sight.

The MPD has prepared approximately 600 traffic control points for the event and will instruct drivers to use alternate routes when heading toward the center of the capital. Pedestrians trying to cross the marathon course will have to use overpasses and underpasses. Newly designed police cars will debut Sunday to coincide with the race.

In the runup to the event, illegal advertisement signs along the marathon course have been taken down and sidewalks have been repaired to make it easy for participants in wheelchairs.

The metro government also held various gatherings that the governor attended as a guest speaker and had a "marathon course walk" in which local residents were invited to hike the course prior to the race.

Thanks to such promotional activities, over 12,000 people have registered as volunteers for the event, organizers said.

But the mammoth event has its share of concerns.

Since amateurs are competing alongside professionals, extra time is needed for the race to be completed. The fastest runners will cross the finish line in a little over two hours, but the marathon will last another five.

Bus companies have issued notices that some routes have been canceled and that there will be delays throughout much of the day. Subway stations will also open their gates to allow the crowds to use their underground passageways.

Meanwhile, activists protesting Tokyo's bid to host the 2016 Olympic Games say Ishihara's autocratic political style was revealed in organizing the event.

Emiko Kashiwagi of Network for No Olympics in Tokyo pointed out that Feb. 18 was the original date planned for the 40th Annual Ome City Marathon in western Tokyo. The Ome race, traditionally held on the third Sunday of February, was forced to reschedule and was held Feb. 4. Ishihara apologized, and showed up as the honorary starter for the Ome race.

"February was the only month available for the event, considering that major races are being held overseas on other dates," Ishihara said after the marathon in Ome.

But Kashiwagi claimed it was "very irrational" for the governor to schedule Tokyo Marathon 2007 on the same date as the event in Ome.

"As a group, we haven't made any public comment about the marathon. But I doubt any of us will be cheering along the runners' path this Sunday," Kashiwagi said.

Regardless of the protests, however, festival arrangements are well under way.

Runners and spectators Sunday will be entertained by samba dancers, marching bands and Japanese drummers along the course to celebrate the occasion. Street vendors and food wagons are expected to serve the crowd.

"This will be the biggest marathon event I've ever participated in, but I'm not worried about the traffic and the size of the crowds," said Nobuo Sugisaki, 50, a member of an amateur marathon group in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward.

"In fact, I am thinking of running with my camera so that I can take photos along the course as a souvenir -- I'll probably be like a tourist."

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