Japanese trio plotting to ambush Radcliffe dream
Britain's world-record holder Paula Radcliffe may view Kenyan opponents as the main threat to her chances of Olympic gold but Japanese runners are quietly plotting an ambush in Athens.
A trio of Japanese marathon women, including two world silver medallists, are determined to retain the Olympic title after Sydney champion and compatriot Naoko Takahashi failed to qualify in disputed trials.
"Nobody can beat Radcliffe if she runs in peak condition. She just runs away from the very start," said former Japanese Olympian Akemi Masuda, who broke the world women's best marathon time twice in her career.
But the expert commentator said the Japanese can threaten Radcliffe if she runs the first five kilometers between 16 minutes and 16 and a half, even in the scorching Athens weather.
"If she runs faster, only Mizuki Noguchi can follow as she can maintain high speed," Masuda said. Radcliffe's five-kilometer laptime was 15.48 when she set her world record.
Noguchi, who stands only 150 centimeters (5 feet), 23 centimeters shorter than Radcliffe, was the first to qualify by finishing second to Kenya's Catherine Ndereba at the world championships in Paris last year.
The 26-year-old former half-marathon specialist stands out for her stride of 150 centimeters, incredibly long for her height.
"She runs like a rubber ball. She can do it because of her strong muscle power. She can squat 65 kilograms," Masuda said.
The two other Japanese entries are Naoko Sakamoto, 23, who won the ticket to Athens by winning at Osaka last January, and Reiko Tosa, 27, who won the 2001 world silver medal.
"The three Japanese have chances. It will be the first midsummer marathon for Radcliffe. She is unlikely to go full out from the start," said Hiromi Suzuki, who won the 1997 world marathon title for Japan.
Another Kenyan, Margaret Okayo, who won at London last April, is also favoured on the tough Athens course which rises 220 meters (730 feet) toward the 32-kilometer point.
Takahashi, who lifted the first Olympic athletic gold medal for Japanese women with her marathon victory in Sydney, had thought her second-place finish in the Tokyo marathon was good enough for Athens, in the absence of clear qualifying criteria.
But Tosa's gutsy victory in the Nagoya marathon denied Takahashi's aim to become the first woman to win two Olympic marathon titles.
Nagoya was the last of the four races which served as Olympic trials for marathon-crazy Japan, whose women have snatched 10 world or Olympic marathon medals, including three golds.
Personal best times set the three Japanese far behind Radcliffe, who ran a world best 2:17:18 at Chicago in 2002. She improved her mark at London last year with a time of 2:15:25.
Noguchi made her marathon debut to conquered Osaka last year in 2:21.18, the second best time for Japanese women. Sakamoto's personal best is 2:21.51 and Tosa's 2:22.46. Japan's record is 2:19.46 set by Takahashi in winning at Berlin in 2001.
Noguchi has been tuning up in the Swiss resort of St. Moritz for more than a month after running 1,350 kilometers (840 miles) during a month of high-altitude training in the Chinese city of Kunming.
"I have never run so much in camp training. I no longer have worries about the distance," she said after the Kunming camp. "I have been pumped up. It is going to be a race of patience in Athens."