“I would get up at 6:30 and run 50 km before breakfast. Then another 20 km. It was rough but I didn’t dislike it. I had to suck it up. I needed to cross that pain barrier”
Sydney won the bid to host the 2000´s Olympics against Beijing, Berlin, Istanbul, and Manchester. It was deserved for Australia due to its continuous support of the Olympic movement, as one of the few nations that had never missed an Olympic Games, along with Greece, Great Britain, Switzerland and France.
Thus, Games were scheduled between September 15 and October 1, springtime in the southern hemisphere to ensure warm weather. 199 nations were present, with the absence of Afghanistan, banned due to the Taliban regime, and the presence of 4 athletes of East Timor competing under the Olympic Flag as their country was still unrecognised.
Although the town of Sydney is hilly, marathon´s organising committee designed a point-to-point course, going from North Sidney Oval to the Olympic Stadium, with only a few hills and turns, and the last 500 metres within the stadium.
Women´s race was scheduled for September 24 at 9.00. Among the 53 participants were the previous two Olympic champions, whose victories we have already told, Russian Valentina Yegorova and Ethiopian Fatuma Roba. But more top-level runners were there, ensuring a very competitive race: for Kenya world record holder Tegla Loroupe and the double winner of both, the Chicago and London marathons, Joyce Chepchumba; Manuela Machado (Portugal), Lidia Simon (Romania) or Naoko Takahashi (Japan) to name only a few.
Naoko Takahashi was no strange to the marathon distance when she arrived at Sydney. She had debuted in 1997 in Osaka with 2.31.32, transitioning from a running career focused on the 5000 metres. On the following year she won Nagoya´s marathon, setting a new Japanese record (2.25.48), and subsequently became Asian champion in Bangkok with a margin of 13 minutes, while improving the national record to 2.21.47. She would miss the World Championships of 1999 because of a knee injury.
After the race started Marleen Renders from Belgium took the lead. Her advantage was 18s at the 5k, but only 3s when crossing the 10k in 17.16, with a big group behind. Renders´ attempt was over soon afterwards. Crossing the 20k (1.08.10) there was a group of 5 runners at the front, with Takahashi, her countrywoman Ari Ichihashi, Simon, Esther Wanjiru (Kenya) and Kim Chang-ok (North Korea).
From that point onwards the selection process began. First were Wanjiru and Chang-ok losing contact, followed by Ichihashi. At the 30k (1.41.39) it was clear that the victory would be decided between the two front runners, Takahashi and Simon. With 8k remaining Takahashi managed to leave Simon behind, although she was unable to open a big gap with her.
At the 40k (2.15.19) Takahashi was 28s ahead of Simon, who accelerated her pace and chased Takahashi more intensely. But it wasn´t enough and victory was finally for Takahashi, who got the first gold medal ever in athletics for Japan.
Takahashi´s time of 2.23.14 improved the Olympic record established by Joan Benoit in Los Angeles 1984. Simon finished second in 2.23.22, the shortest difference in the women´s Olympic marathon, thanks to her strong finish. Third was Chepchumba in 2.24.45. As for the previous Olympic champions, Roba only finished 9th, while Yegorova abandoned after the 15k mark.
The victory of Takahashi made her a celebrity in Japan, although she continued running marathons with great success. In 2001 she became the first woman in breaking the 2.20.00 barrier, thanks to her victory in Berlin (2.19.46), although her record was short-lived because Catherine Ndereba broke it in Chicago one week later. She won again in Berlin in 2002, and also Tokyo 2003, but failed to qualify in the Japanese team for the Olympics of Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008. After this latest disappointment she retired.
Regarding the other runners in the podium, Lidia Simon became World Champion in Edmonton 2001 (2.26.01), appearing again in the next 3 Olympic Games, bringing her total number of Olympic marathons to 5! A long Olympic career defending the Romanian flag going from 1996 to 2012. As for Chepchumba, she managed to add the marathon of New York 2002 to her other important victories.
And that was everything for the women´s marathon. In our next post in the series we will revisit the men´s race, where Gezahegne Abera brought a new Olympic gold medal to Ethiopia.
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“The Olympic Marathon”, DE Martin & RWH Gynn. Human Kinetics, 2000.