Matthew Green tracks down long-distance runner Takahashi Naoko

Ever since the Toyo no Majo (Witches of the East) spiked their way to volleyballing gold at the Tokyo Olympiad, the Japanese have been impassioned supporters of their female medallists. Prime Minister Saito Eisuke expressed his gratitude to Kasai Masae, captain of the 1964 coven, by acting as a matchmaker between Kasai and a young first lieutenant in the ground Self-Defence Forces. The officer and the base attacker married the following year.

Prop-forward PM, Mori Yoshiro, presented marathon runner and Sydney gold medallist Takahashi Naoko not with a husband but with the People’s Honour Award. Only the sixth athlete to receive such an accolade, her selection above a less-photogenic teammate, judo champion Tamura Ryoko, secured Takahashi’s place as the new Olympic “it girl.”

Takahashi, who described her Sydney victory as an “enjoyable 42km,” first came to prominence in 1998 when she won both the Nagoya Women’s Marathon and a gold medal at the Asian Games; her record-breaking performance in Bangkok won her a best female performance accolade in a British track and field magazine, as well as the beginnings of a wider fanbase in Japan.

After Sydney, Takahashi went on to receive civic honours from Gifu (where she was born) Osaka (where she went to university) and Chiba (where she currently lives). She also received a best-dresser award and a “best-use-of-spectacles” prize in honour of her flamboyant jettison of her sunglasses mid-race in Sydney. All this and Japan’s first gold medal in track and field since 1936 enhanced Takahashi’s hero status and made her one of the most bankable personalities in the sporting world.

Bankable for the Japan Olympic Committee, that is, which has managed the rights of Olympic athletes to appear in commercials since 1979. Since then, the JOC has earned in the region of ´8 billion from commercial endorsements by its team members.

Takahashi received a mere ´3 million from the JOC as a bonus for winning gold in Sydney. She received several more million for the committee for appearing in a series of advertisements for the organisation. When advertisers began to approach Takahashi with offers of up to ´50 million per endorsement, she made the decision to turn pro faster than a sprinter off the blocks.

In April she signed with the International Management Group which manages Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters and made her first commercial for Sekisui House, a sister company of Sekisui Kagaku where Takahashi continues to be employed. Sekisui only gave the green light to Takahashi’s commercial career after it was rumoured that they would lose not only Takahashi, but also her coach Koide Yoshio from the company’s athletics team. Takahashi’s decision to turn pro was welcomed by all but her former teammate and rival Arimori Yuko. A silver-medal winner at Barcelona, Arimori became the first Japanese marathon runner to turn professional after a bronze-winning performance at Atlanta but, unlike Takahashi, was forced to leave her company when she began to engage in commercial activities. Roasted by the tabloids when it was revealed her American husband was gay, she now commentates for TV Asahi and tries hard to hide her animosity for Takahashi.

Since launching her commercial career, Q-chan, as Takahashi is commonly known, has galloped headlong through the world of advertising. Her endorsements include Ghana chocolate, Xylitol chewing gum, the Tokyo Shimbun, Daiwa Securities and VAAM, the Meiji sports drink has become popular ever since Takahashi cited it as the source of her stamina at Sydney. The drink, which contains extract from the giant hornet Mandarina Japonica, has also proved popular with non-Japanese marathon runners since it was the subject of an article in The New York Times. Meiji’s casting off of VAAM’s former spokesperson, Arimori Yuko, is said to have stung the athlete unexpectedly.

With her commercial presence firmly established, Takahashi ran her first full marathon in Berlin on September 30. Her winning time of 2 hr. 19 min. 46 sec was compared to Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile in The Guardian and further boosted her popularity at home. The fact that the record was eclipsed one week later when Kenya’s Catherine Ndereba ran the Chicago marathon in less than 2 hr. 19 min. does not seem to have dampened the enthusiasm of Q-chan’s fans. The Sydney Marathon of October 28 will give Takahashi an opportunity to reclaim her title of world-record holder.