2021 Fukuoka International Marathon to Be Its Final Running – The Foreigners magazine In tokyo
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2021 Fukuoka International Marathon to Be Its Final Running

Written by on March 29, 2021

It has been learned that the Fukuoka International Marathon, a longtime fixture on Fukuoka’s December streets, will be discontinued after this year’s race. A classic event long given official World Athletics certified status, 2021 will be the race’s 75th edition. 

According to a source involved with the organization, the JAAF, which is in charge of the event, made the decision that this year would be Fukuoka’s last. Reasons cited for the decision include a loss of sponsors and the high cost of producing the television broadcast.

The Fukuoka International Marathon has long been known as one of the fastest courses in the world and has been home to many famous athletes. The JAAF plans to make an official announcement of the historic event’s termination soon.

Translator’s note: Following the end of the Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon last month, Fukuoka International is the last of the purely elite-only men’s marathons left in Japan. Lake Biwa will be incorporated in name into the Osaka Marathon starting next year, like the Tokyo International Marathon was incorporated into the current Tokyo Marathon in 2007. The Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon remains but opened up to mass-participation runners and women years ago.

On the women’s side, the Nagoya International Women’s Marathon likewise opened up to mass-participation runners years ago, rebranding itself as the Nagoya Women’s Marathon. The Tokyo International Women’s Marathon was pushed out by the Tokyo Marathon, relocating to Yokohama before being pushed out again by the mass-participation Yokohama Marathon and relocating to Saitama before being discontinued last year. 

Fukuoka’s passage means that January’s Osaka International Women’s Marathon will be the last-remaining race in Japan’s once-proud circuit of elite-only races. With the Osaka Marathon moving to the end of February next year, four weeks after Osaka International’s traditional date, and pursuing a World Athletics platinum label, it’s hard not to see the writing already being on the wall.

In the same way, the launch of the mass-participation Fukuoka Marathon four weeks before Fukuoka International’s traditional date on the first Sunday of December had to have hurt the longstanding elite race’s chances of survival. A source involved with the Fukuoka Marathon told JRN that its organizers originally envisioned it as an add-on to the elite race like in Tokyo, Nagoya and Beppu-Oita, a way of modernizing the event to ensure its survival, but that Fukuoka International organizers flatly refused to change their traditional setup. 

Another longstanding and growing problem was Fukuoka International’s date, a month before the New Year Ekiden national corporate championships and a month after the New Year Ekiden’s regional qualifying ekidens. With the New Year Ekiden being the only major ekiden not to guarantee podium-placing teams a spot at the following year’s race, every team has to run the regional qualifiers. The crowded schedule meant the regional qualifiers were a distraction from peak training for Fukuoka International, and the quick turnaround meant recovering from Fukuoka International in time for the New Year was a challenge many of Japan’s top marathoners didn’t want to take on. A source at the JAAF told JRN that there was talk of moving Fukuoka International to February at one point to try to resolve this, but it seemed to have gone nowhere.

Decades ago Fukuoka International served as the de facto marathon world championships before there was an official event with that name. Up until recently it has still pulled in very top talent, typically focusing its resources on getting one marquee international athlete, usually a medalist from the most recent Olympics or World Championships. But the continued growth of options elsewhere hurt Fukuoka International’s relevance internationally, and the rapid development of a higher-quality race the same day at Spain’s Valencia Marathon had to have been at least one of the last nails in the coffin, if not a stake through the heart. That would probably have been any sponsor loss due to the coronavirus crisis.

Of all the races that have gone under since I started JRN this one makes me the saddest. The year I ran Fukuoka International Samuel Wanjiru won it in his debut. Not just for the true elite but for high-level amateurs across Japan and worldwide, qualifying for the Fukuoka International Marathon was a point of pride, especially hitting its A-standard and getting to start on the track with the big boys. I was just wearing my hat from it when I was running a few days ago and still prize it and my post-race towel the highest among the things I’ve gotten at races over the years. 

Time marches on and Japan can be very slow to modernize in a lot of areas. The move to big budget mass-produced McMarathons isn’t all a bad thing, but it’s really hard not to feel that something is being lost. Small races that put an emphasis on excellence were part of what made Japan unique, and for generations they motivated the dreamers every season the same way the U.S. Olympic Trials do every four years for the majority with no chance of making an Olympic team. I’m sorry to see that there’s no longer a place for that sort of thing.

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translated by Brett Larner

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