Athens champ to carry memories with torch

TOKYO (The Japan News/ANN) - The torch relay for the Tokyo Olympics will get its traditional start at the birthplace of the ancient Olympics in Olympia, Greece, where the flame will be carried by a relay of runners before it arrives in Japan later this month. 

The torch relay for the Tokyo Olympics will get its traditional start at the birthplace of the ancient Olympics in Olympia, Greece, where the flame will be lit on Thursday. The flame will be carried by a relay of runners in Greece before it arrives in Japan later this month. 

 For Mizuki Noguchi, the second runner in the Greek leg of the journey, Greece holds a special meaning. It was in the capital of Athens that she won the gold medal in the women’s marathon at the 2004 Olympics, so it seems fitting that she has the honor of serving as the first Japanese runner in the Tokyo 2020 torch relay.

 “I am fortunate to get this opportunity and will run with appreciation,” said Noguchi, 41, who will be returning to Greece for the first time since her historic triumph 16 years ago.

 She spoke with Yomiuri Shimbun sportswriter Kenji Sato about the honor and her Olympic memories. The following are excerpts from their discussion.

 The Yomiuri Shimbun: You have been given the great honor of being the first Japanese to carry [this year’s] Olympic flame.

Noguchi: I was thinking about what I could do to contribute to the Olympics that will be hosted in my home country, so I readily agreed. Among the many Japanese Olympic gold medalists, I was given this honor because of the connection of having won my medal at the Athens Olympics. After the Olympics, I never had the opportunity to visit Athens [again], so I am extremely happy and humbled to be invited for this occasion. 

Q: It’s a place filled with strong memories.

 A: What really stands out in my memories is the start of the race in Marathon in the Athens suburbs, from which the race gets its name. On the morning of the race, as I was warming up, I went by myself to the hill where the ancient Battle of Marathon took place. I prayed before the burial mounds of the warriors, asking them to “please protect me.” 

 The race was held in the evening and I won the gold by only 12 seconds. I was confident that I had done enough distance work in training, and I suppose I could attribute the victory to a number of factors. But when it was over, I had the grateful feeling that “those 12 seconds were an answer to my prayer.” Now 16 years later, I feel like the warriors are calling me back. I feel a strange connection. This time, I will visit the hill and express my thanks.

 Q: What do you remember most about the race?

A: The race was held on Aug. 22 [22/8] and just before it started I was given my race number of 2282. I usually tend to sees things in a positive way, and I remember that with this coincidence, I immediately thought, “I’m going to win!” The finish was in the ancient Panathinaiko Stadium, the venue for the first modern Olympic Games. Just before I entered the stadium as the leader, I spotted one of my teammates who was injured. She had no business running at all [in that condition]. She was crying running alongside me. I also felt like I was about to cry, but I thought it was too early for that and kept my focus as I entered the stadium. An Olympic logo shining in a brilliant white light came into my sight. In this special stadium in this special land, there was no one running in front of me. I was the only one. It was a time I will always treasure and never forget.

Q: What are your feelings about this torch relay?

A: The first runner will be Anna Korakaki, a Greek woman who won a gold medal in shooting at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. It is the first time that the first runner will be a woman, and she will hand off to a woman, me.  It’s a sign of the changing times that people can make their mark regardless of gender, and that’s what I want to be feeling as my torch is lit with the Olympic flame. 

 We are in difficult times with the spread of the new coronovirus, but I hope that it can be contained as soon as possible, and that the world’s athletes can enjoy the Olympics in Japan without fears or worries. With that in mind, I want to run with high hopes for the Tokyo Olympics.