For marathoner Naoko Takahashi, it's not only about speed

Naoko Takahashi wins the Olympic Marathon in Sydney  Credit: Stu Forster/Allsport
With Catherine Ndereba's new world record at Sunday's Chicago Marathon, Naoko Takahashi wasn't the world's fastest women's distance runner for long, but she will always be the first woman to have broken 2:20:00.

But Takahashi will always be the first woman to have broken 2 hours 20 minutes, and while that does not have the same round-numbered ring as a four-minute mile or a two-meter high jump, that does not diminish what her accomplishment means to her career and her discipline.

Last Sunday in Berlin, she broke through where the lactic-acid-ignoring likes of Joan Benoit, Ingrid Kristiansen, Grete Waitz, Rosa Mota and Tegla Loroupe had hit the wall. After 2 hours 19 minutes 46 seconds, Japan's most popular woman athlete had also widened her lead in that subjective category with close to half of her fellow citizens (estimates say 55 million) watching on television at home.

Michael Jordan's return was not the primary sports topic everywhere, which is fair enough considering that Takahashi, unlike Jordan, is at her peak.

She is 29, a fine age for a marathoner, and is one more example of Japan's rising profile in world sports. The country's economy is stalled, but its risk-taking athletes are not, from Takahashi to Ichiro Suzuki, the Seattle Mariners rookie outfielder who is showing that Japanese field players can also make it in America (and perhaps win the most valuable player award and a World Series along the way).

They are part of a new generation of Japanese, less inclined to take the path most traveled and less inclined to succumb to the weight of the nation, although the Japanese media among the world's most numerous and comprehensive are always nearby to remind them of expectations.

The marathon has acquired a special place in Japanese culture because of its emphasis on planning and sacrifice (and because the Japanese are good at it).

It has its own tradition of creating domestic pressure. In 1964, Kokichi Tsuburaya won an Olympic bronze medal in Tokyo and became a strong candidate for gold at the 1968 Mexico City Games. A member of the Japanese Self-Defense Force, he split with his fiancee at the suggestion of his superiors so that he could concentrate on running, but injuries gnawed away his edge. In January 1968, he committed suicide by slitting his wrists, leaving an apology for his parents and a note that said he could not run anymore.

Japan technically had already won the Olympic marathon in 1936, but that was only because Sohn Kee-chung, a Korean, was obliged to run for Japan, which was occupying his nation. The Japanese anthem was also played after the marathon in Tokyo in 1964 because the band did not know the anthem of the winner, Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia.

It was Takahashi who won Japan's first genuine Olympic marathon gold. She did it with panache and a disarmingly relaxed approach in Sydney. Once across the finish line in an Olympic best of 2:23.14 she said: "It was a fun 42-kilometer race. I enjoyed it."

Where was the suffering and sacrifice in that? But Takahashi, like all top marathoners, had experienced plenty of both. As an unexceptional middle-distance runner, her first career plan was to join a life insurance company. Instead, after being identified by the experienced marathon coach Yoshio Koide, she ended up an employee of the Sekisui Chemical company: not as a worker but as an athlete paid to represent the corporation.

In the United States, Olympic athletes give motivational speeches to the business community. In Japan, the promising Olympians are usually on staff and the payroll.

Which would seem to indicate that Takahashi, despite her singular ability, is still in the mold. Yet, she and Koide cracked it to a degree this year, when they negotiated a deal that allowed her freedom to pursue commercial opportunities instead of being obliged to depend on the Japanese Olympic Committee, which controls the commercial use of Olympians' images and distributes the profits as training or developmental grants.

That arrangement, while egalitarian and community-minded, explains why Japan's star Olympians have traditionally earned less than their American and European counterparts. Takahashi, who signed with a U.S.-based sports management group in April, is changing that. Her commercial deals reportedly amount to more than $3 million.

One of those agreements is with the company that makes the exotic drink she has helped make famous: Vaam, an acronym for "vespa amino acid mixture," which contains the same amino acids secreted by hornet larvae. Some Japanese scientists say the substance helps distance runners by increasing their ability to metabolize fat. Other researchers are less sure, but Takahashi placebo effect or big-check effect has certainly helped sales.

She also has attracted 700,000 weekly readers after signing a deal to be the subject of a comic strip entitled "Kazekko," or "Daughter of the Wind." The strip, which began in May, has told her life story. The week before she ran in Berlin, it depicted her passing through the Brandenburg Gate and winning with the fastest time in history.

She and Koide had left little to chance, skipping the world championships in Edmonton in August and moving back to their pre-Olympic training base in Colorado to log eye-popping mileage and prepare in relative peace. They chose Berlin instead of Chicago because it was a slightly more straightforward course and because the timing of the race allowed it be broadcast live in Japan in the late afternoon.

But she did not set a world record. The International Association of Athletics Federations does not recognize world records in the marathon because courses vary too much to be compared. Instead, she set a "world best."

She got it with the help of a phalanx of male runners, who ran interference for her and helped set the requisite pace. Such tactics are questionable. The IAAF recommends that women start well before men in mixed races. Berlin chose to ignore that advice, but Takahashi also has the fastest time in a women-only race: A time of 2:21.47 in brutal heat and humidity in Bangkok at the 1998 Asian Games.

No, she has no need to present her excuses, but the question now is whether she will have to present her congratulations to Ndereba or another runner Sunday. Thanks to her, 2:20 is no longer such a scary number.

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