Photo/IllutrationParticipants run in the Hokkaido Marathon in Sapporo in August. (Fumiko Yoshigaki)

  • Photo/Illustraion

And just like that, the marathon events for the 2020 Tokyo Games have been relocated--or so it appears--to relatively cooler Hokkaido, easing concerns about the sweltering summer heat, but catching many by surprise.

The International Olympic Committee recommended on Oct. 16 that the marathon and race walking events be shifted to Sapporo in a move that has officials and those involved in preparations in Tokyo scratching their heads, while others up north are welcoming the prospect.

"I've heard nothing about it, but I'll take it as a blessing," Sapporo Mayor Katsuhiro Akimoto told The Asahi Shimbun after the IOC announced the plan. "If there is anything we can do to help make the Tokyo Games successful, we are happy to cooperate as much as possible."

Toshiya Ishikawa, vice mayor of Sapporo who is in charge of Olympics-related activities, also received the news favorably, saying, "If it's true, it's indeed an honor for Sapporo."

COOLER CONDITIONS

The choice of Sapporo is ideal, according to some experts, as it is a runner-friendly city and has experience holding major sports events, including the 1972 Winter Olympics.

The annual Hokkaido Marathon, one of the few marathon events held in the summer in Japan and popular among amateur runners, has been held there since 1987. About 20,000 runners participated in the 33rd installment in August.

Nobuaki Sasamori, 73, a resident of Kita-Hiroshima in Hokkaido, has participated in the marathon since its inception and ran the full distance each time.

"It's cruel to hold a marathon in Tokyo in the summer," Sasamori said. "It has an effect on the sports career of runners. I appreciate that (the IOC) has considered a cooler place as an alternative site."

Kiichi Sugiyama, a Hokkaido University of Education professor and pioneer in coaching marathon running in Hokkaido, said, “Sapporo has a proven record of operating the Hokkaido Marathon and offers extensive accommodation facilities for athletes and related officials.

"Assuming the Olympic marathon events are held at the same course as the Hokkaido Marathon, I would say the conditions are comparatively flat and friendly to runners," Sugiyama, 60, added.

"More than anything else, weather conditions such as temperature and humidity are much better than in Tokyo. Sapporo is the best city to host the marathon events for the Tokyo Games."

At the same time, Sugiyama pointed out that the course for the Marathon Grand Championship (MGC) held in Tokyo on Sept. 15 as the first qualifier for marathoners representing Japan next year, was designed on the assumption that the Olympic marathon would be held in the capital.

"It would be disappointing if it was not used," he said.

EXCITEMENT UP NORTH

The sudden prospect of Sapporo playing host to the Olympic marathon events has been received with excitement by amateur runners and sports fans alike in Hokkaido.

"The culture of rooting on marathoners is strong in Sapporo. I'm sure people will go wild along the route," said Shinji Saisu, 43, an organizer of runners' circle Nakashibetsu Junirakuso, which has more than 70 members.

Saisu, who lives in Nakashibetsu town in eastern Hokkaido, was fired up about the news, adding, "I really hope the Olympic marathoners run the Hokkaido Marathon course.

"The route starts at the center of Hokkaido's capital, extends to the suburbs, and goes through the campus of Hokkaido University. It then passes in front of the Hokkaido government's red-brick building before the finish line. It's an amazing course," he added.

In Kushiro, a city lying about 300 kilometers east of Sapporo, marathon enthusiast Gaku Ueno, 31, said he was also excited by the news, but had a hard time believing it, saying, "Is it true? It's the 'Tokyo Olympics.' Is it OK to have the (marathon events) here?"

Ueno himself has run many marathons, including the Kushiro Shitsugen Marathon that takes runners through the nation's largest wetland rich with wildlife habitation.

"I've always thought Tokyo is too hot (to host marathons) and that the plan was unreasonable," Ueno said. "I would feel bad if the outcome for runners was decided by factors other than their actual ability, so I strongly welcome the marathon being held in Hokkaido. I'd love to go and cheer (the runners on) if I can," he added.

OUTRAGE IN TOKYO

Reactions from officials preparing for the Olympic marathon events in Tokyo were not as positive as those up north.

"(The plan) was abruptly announced. Such a manner of moving things forward leaves many difficulties. I demand a full explanation (from the IOC)," Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike said in a statement released just after 10 p.m. the day of the announcement.

A top executive of the Tokyo metropolitan government who is close to Koike said, "I get a headache just thinking about the adjustments that would be required."

One veteran member of the Tokyo metropolitan assembly didn't hold back criticism of the move, saying: "It's outrageous. Heat in Tokyo is old news. The insufficient manner of dealing with the issue is regrettable."

The move by the IOC to change a main Olympic event is unusual, let alone a marathon, which was featured in the first Olympics of the modern era held in Athens in 1896 and has been considered synonymous with the Games.

In particular, the men's marathon is normally scheduled for the last day of the Olympics, with medals to be awarded to winners during the closing ceremony in front of thousands of spectators.

The news was also met with some disappointment by marathon fans and athletes in the nation's capital.

Daisuke Mitsui, a 22-year-old university student in Tokyo, was so surprised by the recommendation that he stuttered, "Sa ... Sapporo?"

However, Mitsui, a long-distance runner himself, expressed understanding of the IOC's move, saying, "It's the host nation's mission to think about the athletes first."

CONFUSION ALL AROUND

Osamu Kashimura, an environmental physiology professor at the Tokyo University of Agriculture who urged organizers of the Tokyo Games to move up the starting time of marathon events by one hour, has welcomed the possible change of venue.

“I'm for the venue change, considering the importance of protecting athletes and spectators from heat-related illnesses.”

Meanwhile, the shock wave of the recommendation has spread among marathoners and coaches.

Hiroaki Oyagi, who coaches Shogo Nakamura, the winner of the men’s part of the MGC in Tokyo in September and an expected national team member for the 2020 Games, said, “We've taken measures against hot weather with Tokyo (as the venue) in mind.

"We got a taste of the Olympics marathon course by running a similar course at the MGC. I don't want them to change it at this late hour."

Yutaka Taketomi, who coaches Honami Maeda, the winner of the women’s title at the MGC, was bewildered by the news, saying, "We've prepared ourselves in many ways."

He added that while it may be relatively cooler than Tokyo in the summer, "Sapporo is hot when it is hot."