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Friday, March 19, 2004

SPORTS SCOPE

Failure to include Takahashi on team for Athens a joke


I guess if you live long enough, you will see everything.

Jack Gallagher

That is about the only way I can describe my reaction to the events of Monday, when the Japan Association of Athletics Federation failed to name Naoko Takahashi as one of the three female marathoners to represent Japan at the Olympics this summer in Athens.

On the surface, there appears to be merits on either side of the issue in this controversy.

The JAAF relied upon the times registered by the various candidates in last summer's World Championships in France and the three qualifying marathons held in Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya over the past four months, for its decision.

From this, it selected Mizuki Noguchi (second at the worlds), Naoko Sakamoto (the winner in Osaka) and Reiko Tosa (the winner in Nagoya), with Masako Chiba as the alternate.

News photo
Naoko Takahashi was left off the Japan team for the Olympics in Athens this summer due to a combination of bad luck and bureaucratic bungling by the Japan Association of Athletics Federation.

This combined with the fact that Takahashi chose to pass up running in either Osaka or Nagoya, despite knowing that she had run a substandard time in Tokyo, was the basis for the JAAF's logic for its selections.

On the other hand, Takahashi, the defending Olympic champion in the event and the only female gold medalist in athletics the nation has ever produced, had her incredible accomplishment in Sydney and impressive record (six victories, including a world-record time, and one second-place finish) over the past five years in the marathon weighing in her favor.

Of all of the runners under consideration, Takahashi, who was bedeviled by unseasonably warm weather during her mid-November run in Tokyo, which saw her fade in the final 5 km of the race, had recorded the slowest time -- 2 hours, 27 minutes, 21 seconds -- in the qualifying events.

The problem here is that the JAAF made it clear, ahead of the selection meeting, that the race times would not be the only factor considered when it came time to make the final decision.

I never cease to be amazed at the inability of Japanese sports executives to make a tough decision when they have to. Everybody always wants to look the other way at the crucial moment.

Heading into Monday's JAAF selection meeting, Noguchi had already been assured one of the spots for Athens because of her silver medal finish at the worlds, while Sakamoto was a virtual lock for one of the other two places, after her win in Osaka.

A careful analysis of the other factors, which were supposed to be considered, shows that Takahashi should clearly have been the third runner chosen.

Takahashi, who holds the Japan record in the women's marathon with a time of 2:19:46 (set in her victory at the Berlin Marathon in 2001), has a clearly superior personal best time compared to the three runners selected.

Noguchi's best time is 2:21:18 -- more than 1 minute, 30 seconds slower than Takahashi's. Sakamoto's personal record is 2:21:51 -- over 2 minutes slower than Takahashi's. Tosa best effort is 2:22:46 -- exactly 3 minutes slower than Takahashi's.

Additionally, entering the Tokyo Marathon, Takahashi had won six straight marathons, a pretty amazing feat. The trio selected to go to Athens has won a grand total of four international marathons (Noguchi -- two; Sakamoto, Tosa -- one each). Somehow, the JAAF was able to discount this data, while not being able to fathom the fact that, perhaps, Takahashi's showing in Tokyo was just a fluke.

Despite coming in second to Ethiopia's Elfenesh Alemu in the race, Takahashi still was the top Japanese finisher.

In addition to the raw data considered during the selection process, what about the intangibles Takahashi would bring to the squad?

Experience in the most glaring of spotlights, intelligence, dedication and, most importantly, guts. Somebody the other runners could look up to and learn from.

It seems clear to me that the JAAF should have selected Takahashi for the third spot and then taken the heat for it.

There would have been a lot less criticism, because she was clearly the most qualified of the remaining candidates, and it was the right decision.

What I find most fascinating, is this concept of fairness that the JAAF officials tried to sell to media and public after the selection was made.

You know, "well the others had better times and better splits," etc.

This in a country where the concept of fairness, to say the least, is a foreign one.

Takahashi getting passed over is just another example of somebody getting railroaded. Trying to justify the decision is a joke.

I was truly looking forward to the women's marathon in Athens this summer, with Takahashi likely going to the starting line for the first time ever against Britain's Paula Radcliffe, the world record-holder (2:15:25 -- 2003 London Marathon) in the event.

That is a race that would have brought both phenomenal interest and record ratings for the sport.

Radcliffe the machine vs. Takahashi the national hero.

We will never know how it might have turned out though, because a bunch of bureaucrats took the easy way out when the chips were down.



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