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Last Chance to Qualify for Tokyo 2020: Harsh Reality and a Ray of Hope at Oita Wheelchair Marathon

Oita Wheelchair Marathon 2020 was held on November 15 and the day was perfect for a marathon. The weather and temperature were ideal and there was almost no wind. Since the course was one that had previously produced a world record, everyone expected a high-paced race to unfold.

Many athletes had high stakes in this tournament because, for those hoping to qualify for Tokyo 2020, it would likely be their last chance.

Oita Wheelchair Marathon 2020 looked vastly different from previous years, with bystanders asked to stay home

The World Para Athletics Marathon World Cup had originally been the race to select the Tokyo 2020 delegation, but it was canceled due to COVID-19. As an alternative, World Para Athletics announced a system that would use marathon rankings based on the athletes’ records to allot placements. It would determine rankings based on records up until March 31, 2021. To qualify for a place on the Japanese delegation to Tokyo 2020, athletes must be in the top six of this ranking system and the top two, not including those who qualify through other routes such as the championship allocation, will be selected. These demanding conditions mean that most athletes need to overwrite their personal records. Nevertheless, of the athletes at the Oita Marathon, eight men and two women ranked within the top 15 in the world. So the question was, who would win this big chance? All eyes were on the athletes’ performances and their times.

Everyone Expected a Close and Heated Race, but…

At an online press conference held before the tournament, Tatsuru Ibusuki, Head of the Intensive Training Committee at Japan Para Athletics (JPA), said, “If athletes try to check each other, they’ll lose time. They have to actively work to give the race their all if they want to compete against international competitors.” He hoped a close and heated race between the athletes would produce new records. However…

Suzuki (left, in the lead) and Nishida sprang ahead at the start of the race

Tomoki Suzuki emerged as the key athlete of the tournament. The 26-year-old was the only participant at the Oita Marathon already qualified for Tokyo 2020. Suzuki also competes in track races and excels in sprints. In fact, a week before the marathon, he won the 100m (T54) event at the Kanto Para Athletics Championships. All the athletes who had stakes in the tournament naturally anticipated that Suzuki would lead. That included Sho Watanabe, who is ranked highest in Japan after Suzuki, and Hiroyuki Yamamoto, who represented Japan at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. However, after Suzuki sprang ahead at the start of the race, he continued to widen the gap between himself and the other athletes. Hiroki Nishida kept up with him for a while, but eventually had to drop back. So six kilometers into the race, Suzuki was up ahead all on his own.

Reflecting on his feelings once the race started, Suzuki said, “I wasn’t thinking about a race plan. Since I came out ahead at the start, I thought there was nothing for it but to go ahead on my own.”

Watanabe, who was one of those who got left behind, said, “I thought, ‘I need to keep up with him for at least the first five kilometers no matter how fast he is’…but he got away and that’s a big problem.” He looked frustrated.
Suzuki, despite the strained looks that crossed his face at times, continued to race on his own at an amazing speed and made his first win at the Oita Marathon with a time of 1:22:02. It was an outstanding race that raised expectations for him to win a medal at Tokyo 2020.

In the second pack of contenders, Kota Hokinoue came out front at one point. However, by the time they passed the 40-kilometer mark, the race time was already 1 hour and 22 minutes. When they reached the finish line at Oita Athletic Stadium, Yamamoto came in second and Watanabe third, both with a time of 1:26:44. To be considered for a spot on the Tokyo 2020 delegation from their marathon ranks, athletes are expected to finish within 1:22:23. So everyone who came in second place or below now faces an extremely tough challenge getting qualified to compete in the marathon event at Tokyo 2020.

Nishida (right) tried to keep up with Suzuki in the lead, but…

Due to COVID-19 spreading across the world, Oita Wheelchair Marathon 2020 was in question. However, with so many tournaments being canceled in Japan and abroad, the athletes had nowhere they could compete. “As the birthplace of parasports in Japan, we felt it was important to pass on the torch of wheelchair marathon here in Oita,” said the organizers, expressing their passion for the sport. So they made the decision to hold the tournament with strict COVID-19 measures in place. Entries were limited to athletes living in Japan and all participants took PCR tests. Bystanders, who usually line the streets, were asked to stay home and the race was live-streamed on an exclusive website.

Tsuchida Won in the Women’s Race but Failed to Reach Her Target Time

Wakako Tsuchida, who also competes in the triathlon, won the women’s race with a time of 1:39:42. She had hoped to switch leads with Tsubasa Kina, who came in second, until the final stretch of the race to save their strengths and shorten their times. But Kina, who was behind, started to slow down at around the 25-kilometer mark. Tsuchida ended up being over three minutes short of her target time, which she needed to raise her rank. “I’m disappointed, but I gave it all that I have right now,” she said with good grace.

Tsuchida crossed the finish line in first place for the first time in eight years

*Results of Oita Wheelchair Marathon 2020

text by Asuka Senaga
photo by X-1

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