The 2004 Summer Olympics saw the Olympic Games go back where they began. Athens was chosen as the host city leading all the voting rounds, defeating Rome, Cape Town, Stockholm, and Buenos Aires. That would be the second time that Athens would hold the Olympics after the inaugural ones of modern times in 1896.
Regarding the marathon, it would follow the same route than the 1896 Olympics. Starting on the site of the Battle of Marathon it would finish in the Panathenaic Stadium of Athens. And it wasn´t an easy course, with many hills until the final ten kilometres, that were mainly downhill.
The women´s marathon was going to take place on August 22 at 18.00. Considering Greek´s summer weather it was going to be a tough race. For starters the evening offered a 30% humidity and 35°C!
Let´s see first how the women´s marathon scene was at that time…
The main favourite was the British Paula Radcliffe, who had dominated the marathon distance since her debut in London 2002 with 2.18.55, the second fastest time ever. Later that year she won Chicago with a WR of 2.17.47, a time she further improved in London 2003 to 2.15.25. But 2004 had been a tough year for her, with various injuries complicating her training schedule.
Besides Radcliffe, the Kenyan Catherine Ndereba was second in the rankings and World Champion. And here was, as usual, a powerful Japanese team with Mizuki Noguchi and Naoko Sakamoto, who had been second and fourth in the World Championships of Saint-Denis in 2003, and the strong Romanian Lidia Simon, already silver in Sydney 2000.
Noguchi started running short distances in school, before transitioning to cross-country events, where she won the gold medal in the Asian Championships of 1999. That same year she won the Inuyama half marathon, and focused on this event, where she would manage to win 14 out of 24 half-marathons. She tried for the first time the full marathon distance in 2002 in Nagoya, where she won in 2.25.35. The following year she won the Osaka women only marathon in 2.21.18, finishing second in the World Championships (2.24.14).
But it is time to get back to the 2004 Olympics marathon, where 82 runners were starting the race.
Radcliffe took the lead of the race from the start, with a group of runners tagging along. They crossed the 10k in 34.25 and the 20k in 1.09.57. None of them were playing their cards, but everything was about to change.
Passing the 25k there was an uphill section, where Radcliffe struggled to keep her pace. That seemed as an opportunity to Noguchi, who increased her pace and took the lead. Crossing the 30k (1.45.02) she was leading 28s ahead of Elfenesh Alemu, from Ethiopia. Shortly behind them were coming Radcliffe and Ndereba.
Near the 35k Radcliffe launched a desperate attack searching for the medals. It was futile. Overtaken by Ndereba, and temporarily out of the medal positions, she stopped on the side of the road. Sobbing, and lost all hope, she abandoned the race.
Meanwhile Ndereba was closing the gap with Noguchi. In the 40k (2.19.00) her lead was down to just 12s. The next two runners were much further: Alemu at 1.17 and the United States’ athlete Deena Kastor, at 1.35, strongly chasing the bronze medal.
Entering the Panathinaiko Stadium Noguchi kept her lead, winning Ndereba by 12s and a second consecutive gold medal for Japan in the event with 2.26.20. The bronze medal went surprisingly to Kastor in 2.27.20, who had run the second half of the race 4 minutes faster than the first!
From the 82 starters, only 66 finished the race.
Noguchi´s victories weren´t over. She won the Berlin Marathon of 2005 with 2.19.12, establishing the course record, but also the Japanese and Asian ones. She didn´t go to the Olympics of Beijing 2008 due to physical problems and missed also the following two seasons. In 2012 she failed to qualify for London 2012. A talented runner she run many other races in a range of distances before retiring in 2016.
Regarding Ndereba, she would add another two Boston Marathon victories to her previous two ones and would have another shot to Olympic glory in Beijing 2008, similarly to Kastor, but…
It will be told in a future post.
Thanks for reading!