Japan Dump Marathon Queen Naoko Takahashi From Olympic Team

TOKYO, March 15 (AFP) - Japan’s reigning women’sOlympic marathon champion Naoko Takahashi has beendropped from the squad for this year’s games, ending herbid for an unprecedented second straight Olympic gold inthe event.
The national heart throb failed to win the Tokyointernational marathon last November, one of four eventsdesignated by the Japanese Amateur Athletic Federationas trials for the Athens Olympics in August.
The federation announced it had picked three women forthe Olympic marathon, including Mizuki Noguchi who wasautomatically selected when she picked up the silvermedal at the 2003 world championships in Paris.
The other berths went to Naoko Sakamoto and Reiko Tosa, who won two other trials.
Sakamoto, 23, triumphed in the Osaka internationalmarathon in January and Tosa, 27, who finished second inthe 2001 world championships, came from behind to winthe race in Nagoya only a day earlier.
Takahashi, a diminutive 31-year-old, stalled in thelast seven kilometers to give up her lead and finishedsecond behind Ethiopian Elfenesh Alemu in the Tokyomarathon.
But, hoping not to disrupt her training schedule forAthens, she opted not to compete in Nagoya.
The women’s marathon squad has been the subject ofintense speculation in recent months, with some fearingthat Takahashi’s overwheming popularity and hugecommercial potential would give her an unfair advantagein the selection process.
Takahashi’s gold in Sydney was the first for aJapanese woman in an Olympic marathon.
She holds the national record after clocking 2hr 19min46sec in winning the 2001 Berlin marathon.

By Jim Armstrong
TOKYO, March 16 AP - Naoko Takahashi’s omission fromJapan’s marathon team for the Athens Olympics created anoutburst of emotion rarely seen in this country.
Throughout Japan, Takahashi’s fans reacted with dismayto Monday’s announcement that the popular Sydney Olympicgold medalist won’t be going to Athens to defend hertitle in women’s marathon.
I can't believe she didn't make it,'' said officeworker Akiko Matsushima. She’s 31 and likely won’t getanother shot at the Olympics. It’s very sad.’’
Takahashi’s failure to make the Athens team was frontpage news in almost all Japanese newspapers today andthe issue was widely debated on morning talk shows.
Even Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumu weighed in.
It's a shame,'' said Koizumi. Is there no way wecould send one more person?’’
Marathon is tremendously popular in Japan andTakahashi, with her bubbly personality and schoolgirlinnocence, struck a cord with fans in every walk oflife.
Her victory in Sydney was one of Japan’s proudestmoments in sport.
Sensing a potential backlash, Keisuke Sawagi, thedirector of the Japan Association of AthleticsFederations, called the decision to leave Takahashi outvery painful.'' Adding to the sense of injustice is a belief that thedecision was based solely on a sub-par performance inNovember's Tokyo Marathon when Takahashi faded over thesecond half and finished second with an unimpressivetime of 2 minutes, 27 minutes and 21 seconds. We rate Takahashi’s talent very highly,’’ saidfederation executive Keisaku Sawaki. But at the Tokyorace she got off to a strong start and then lost herstamina down the final stretch. That's an importantfactor to consider.'' Takahashi's decision to sit out several qualifyingraces leading up to Monday's announcement - includingSunday's Nagoya International Women's Marathon - alsodidn't help her cause and the popular runner admittedthat may have been a tactical error. Reiko Tosa, who won the Nagoya race with time of2:23:57, was named to the team along with MizukiNoguchi, who automatically secured a spot by placing 2ndin the Paris World Championships last August. The tworunners will be joined by Osaka marathon winner NaokoSakamoto. For her part, Takahashi was gracious in accepting thedecision. For a long time, I’ve wanted to go and had imaginedmyself running, so I am disappointed that I will not beable to,’’ Takahashi told a nationally televised newsconference. ``But I congratulate the athletes who werechosen and wish them every success in Athens.’’