Hardened by gruelling hill work in the Swiss mountains and undeterred by the punishing Athens heat, Mizuki Noguchi seized a second straight gold medal for Japan in the women's Olympic marathon on Sunday.
Noguchi, 26, matched Paula Radcliffe of Great Britain, the world record-holder and heavy favorite here, stride for stride for the first half of the race before pulling away over the steep incline leading to the 32-kilometre mark. With around five kilomtres to go in the race, Radcliffe doubled over in pain and dropped out in a bitter personal disappointment. Heading into the streets of downtown Athens, the tiny Noguchi - 1.52 metres tall - used her bouncing stride to hold off Catherine Ndereba of Kenya, who closed the gap over the final 5 kilometers but could not make up the difference. Noguchi won in 2 hours 26 minutes 20 seconds. Ndereba finished 12 seconds behind. In a stunning surprise, Deena Kastor surged to take bronze in 2:27:20. It is the first Olympic marathon medal for the US since Joan Benoit Samuelson won in Los Angeles in 1984.
Noguchi, who took second at the world championships last year in Paris, appeared in control throughout a race that was considered Radcliffe's to lose. And lose Radcliffe did, in startling fashion for a front-running woman who clocked 2:15:25 in London last year to set the world record and had won all three marathons she ran before Sunday. Her marathon debut in London in 2002, a 2:18:56, had been the fastest first race at the distance by more than four minutes. Radcliffe, 30, entered Sunday's contest as Britain's best hope for a track and field gold.
But the conditions took their toll on Radcliffe, who had trained in the Pyrenees of Spain and the heat of Seville. As she stopped, Radcliffe put her hands to her head, began sobbing, and dropped to the curb, in disbelief.Noguchi, meanwhile, ran consistently to pull away from her closest pursuers, Ndereba and Elfenesh Alemu of Ethiopia.
Alemu finished second in Boston this year in a memorable shoulder-to-shoulder duel with Ndereba. Noguchi came into the marathon as part of a Japanese trio who had trained around the globe. Noguchi prepared in St. Moritz, Switzerland; Reiko Tosa in China; and Naoko Sakamoto in Colorado. What they lacked in heat training, the Japanese made up in altitude.
The Japanese, who have won marathon medals in four straight Games, revere the race. The competition takes on an almost patriotic discipline. None of the three, following Radcliffe's model, had granted foreign interviews before the race. Noguchi, however, was considered the main threat to Radcliffe's command of the marathon scene, which she joined after struggling to match the speed of African runners at 5,000 and 10,000 meters in the 1996 and 2000 Olympic Games.
Speed wasn't the issue on Sunday. The heat was, and Radcliffe simply appeared to wilt in the 32 degree plus temperatures.
The course traced the approximate route that Pheidippides, an Athenian messenger, ran in 490 BC, carrying news of the great Greek victory over the Persians on the plains of Marathon.
Once in Athens, Pheidippides fell dead after delivering his message of ``Nike,'' or victory.
Radcliffe, who carried the heady expectations of a nation that never had won a long-distance Olympic event, led a pack of 15 runners through 5 kilometres in 17:09. At 10 kilometres, Radcliffe still set the pace, head bobbing in her unique style, at 34:14. But by 15 kilometers, at 52:10, Noguchi had pushed a few metres ahead of Radcliffe, tossing aside her cap and bearing down to test Radcliffe's will and reserves. The pack had dwindled to seven by the halfway mark, where Tosa led in 1:14:02. Noguchi was fourth and Sakamoto fifth, both a fraction of a second behind. At 25 kilometres, Noguchi had opened up a 23-second lead on Alemu, with Radcliffe and Ndereba close behind. The gantlet had been thrown, and none but Noguchi could maintain the pace. After a total of 25 kilometres, in which Noguchi had not run a five kilometre segment faster than 17:09, she strung together intervals of 16:57, 17:02, and 16:56 to put the race away and the gold around her neck.
After her victory, the soft-spoken Noguchi walked quietly past Japanese reporters and fans in the stadium. Noguchi prepared for the hilly course by training hard in the Swiss mountains. ``I was well-prepared for the race,'' Noguchi said. ``I knew there would be difficult conditions, like the heat, the sun, and a great deal of fatigue.'' Kastor, 31, who was runner-up in the US marathon trials, also closed quickly. Kastor passed the half-marathon in 1:15:40, in 12th place and 98 seconds behind Noguchi, before covering the final 13.1 miles in a stunning 1:11:40. The American record-holder (2:21:16) said she didn't know whether she held third or fourth place when she entered Panathinaiko Stadium, the finish line and site of the first modern Games in 1896. ``It's incredible. The whole last lap I was in tears,'' Kastor said.