Sports Stars

Takahashi Naoko

(Gifu Prefecture, 1972- )

Takahashi NaokoArimori Yuko, 1992 Olympic silver medalist in the marathon (and the bronze in 1996), has good reason to hate Takahashi Naoko. The photogenic and popular Arimori's post running career has been completely eclipsed by the current success of the equally camera-friendly Takahashi. What's more, Q-chan - as she is known to her many fans - had the nerve to become the first Japanese track and field Olympic gold medalist (see note below) in Sydney and currently holds the world record, having broken the 2-hour, 20-minute time barrier at the 2001 Berlin Marathon. Indeed, many consider the 29-year old Takahashi as the best female marathon runner of all time.

Takahashi's bio includes another important thing she has in common with Arimori - both women actively sought out and were coached by the charismatic Koide Yoshio, who also trained 1997 world champion Suzuki Hiromi. Takahashi approached Koide at the track club of Recruit, one of Japan's major companies, after her graduation from Osaka Gakuin University. Koide initially refused to coach her and only accepted her when she offered to train with the team at her own expense. She had been a promising but only moderately successful 800m runner in junior and senior high school and had moved up to longer distances at university. But a first place at the collegiate championships eluded her and, even under Koide at first, her results continued to be mediocre. When Koide moved to the Sekisui Chemical track team, Takahashi followed, despite her loyalty to the Recruit team. She knew that Koide was the only coach who could help her realize her potential.

In 1996, Takahashi started to make a breakthrough. She achieved good times in the 5,000m and 10,000m and was selected for the Japanese 1997 World Championship team in Athens. She trained with marathon champion Suzuki but finished a disappointing 13th in the 5,000m. She had previously finished 7th in her marathon debut in Osaka earlier in the year and her second marathon, at Nagoya in 1998, was the turning point. She won the race in a new national record time of 2:25:48 and people started to sit up and take notice. Further successes at the 5,000m and 10,000m distances were followed by the gold medal at the Asian Games in Bangkok. Despite the hot and humid conditions, she ran the fifth-fastest time in history - the fastest ever in an all-female race - and was voted the best female athlete of the year by British magazine Athletics International.

Koide said that he had always thought that the marathon would be her strongest event, but that she had lacked the mental strength needed for the big events. He said, "After a mediocre run in her debut marathon, I thought it would take her two years to fulfill her potential. Next year, she will even be better." And indeed, the best was yet to come.

The 2000 Olympic women's marathon in Sydney was the fifth time the event was held and the course was considered to be the most difficult yet. Takahashi took the lead in the race at the 35km mark and never looked in any danger after that. She finished in a new Olympic record time of 2:23:14, beating the 16-year old record set in the first ever event. Takahashi's tiny 157cm, 40kg frame was almost enveloped in the Hinomaru flag that she carried on her lap of honor. She immediately sought out Koide, the coach who had helped her reach the pinnacle of her career. The two often appear together and Koide, with his ebullient personality, has become a popular face on Japanese TV. But Q-chan (the nickname relates to a story about Takahashi dancing at a Recruit welcome party dressed as cartoon ghost Q-Taro), has become a real sporting icon, a hero for troubled times in Japan. Her world record time in Berlin showed that she is on course to win more than one Olympic medal.

Note: Much was made of the fact that Takahashi was the first Japanese athlete to win an Olympic gold medal in track and field. In fact, at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Korean Son Ki Tei was forced to run under the Japanese flag and won the marathon gold. Korea had been annexed by Japan at the time.