Naoko Takahashi of Japan today set a new Olympic Best Performance as she won the first women's Olympic marathon title won by a Japanese on what many described as the toughest marathon course in Olympic history.
The 1998 Asian Games champion, holder of the World best performance in a women's only race, Takahashi covered the heavily undulating course in 2:23:14 to take the gold and finish ahead of the 1999 World Championship bronze medallist, Lidia Simon from Romania and 1998 London marathon winner, Kenyan Joyce Chepchumba.
Takahashi's time broke the previous best of 2:24:52 clocked by Joan Benoit of the United States in the inaugural women's marathon at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
Takahashi and Simon were among the early leaders, together with Takahashi’s compatriot Ari Ichihashi, Adriana Fernandez from Mexico, Chang Ok Kim (PRK), Esther Wanjiru (KEN) Elfensesh Alemu (ETH) and Bong Sil Ham also of the People’s Republic of Korea.
The leaders went through the first five kilometres in 1:11:45 and at this point had already built up a lead of nearly a minute over the following group. Belgium’s Marleen Renders, who had tried to force the pace at the start of the race soon dropping back into the following group.
Mexican Adriana Fernandez, a former runner-up in the New York, London and Houston marathons, took the lead briefly before she was overtaken by Ichihashi and Takahashi.
World best performance holder in the marathon (Berlin 1999 -2:20:43), Tegla Loroupe, who later said that she had been sick before the start of the race, had dropped way back by the fifteen kilometre mark and was in 26th position at that point.
By 25 kilometres, the die looked set. With Simon in the lead, running tightly bunched with Takahashi and Ichihashi, the leaders were timed at 1:24:48.
Nine seconds behind them the Kenyans, Chepchumba and Wanjiru and Ethiopia’s Alemu.
At 3O km (1:41:39), Simon and Takahashi were running together 47 seconds ahead of Ichihashi, with Chepchumba seven seconds behind Ichihashi, followed by Alemu and Wanjiru.
By 35 km, the podium was already defined. Timed at 1:58:26 as the leaders crossed the Anzac Bridge, Takahashi was leading Simon by a couple of seconds, with Chepchumba in third position trailing by six seconds, followed by Wanjiru. Ichihashi had fallen back into 10th place just behind Loroupe who was desperately trying to make up the ground she had lost in the early stages.
With Takahashi turning on the power, Simon was trailing by 28 seconds at the 40km mark, which Takahashi went past in 2:15:19.
Entering the stadium , Takahashi was a clear winner, despite Simon’s strong finish.
"I was very confident going into the race," said Takahashi."I have spent the last three months training in the United States at high altitude and training over hills so I was confident about my condition.
"At the 35 kms mark I thought I could win but as I ran into the stadium I had a quick look behind me and I was scared Lidia was so close behind me. My breathing was okay but my legs were heavy."
The Romanian had gained 20 seconds over the last 2 kilometres, but was unable to catch Takahashi who had run a faultless race from the start. Chepchumba finished third in a personal best of 2:24:45, just over a minute and half off the winner’s time.