The Olympic course that will showcase the world’s best women and men in the marathon and close out the competition of the Tokyo 2020 Games won’t highlight the host city of Tokyo or finish in front of cheering throngs in the Olympic stadium. Instead, it will be run on a multi-lap pinwheel course through the empty streets of a city 500 miles away.
That wasn’t what anyone involved originally planned, but organizers have adapted to the demands handed down to them from on high and created a unique course sure to produce races unforgettable in more ways than one. Here’s how we got to the current course and what runners will face in August.
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The Popular Plan
The last two Olympics saw the marathon move in the direction already taken by the World Championships, shifting from a traditional single-loop or point-to-point course to a multi-lap circuit course design. The 2012 London Olympics went one step further, eliminating one of the iconic moments of the Olympic Games, the instant the leader in the marathon bursts from the reverberant silence and dark of the tunnel into the wide-open spaces of light and sound in the main Olympic stadium.
Rio 2016 followed London’s lead, but Tokyo 2020 was set to restore those Olympic traditions with a main stadium start and finish and a single-loop course through the center of the city. That route spanned the history of Japanese distance running by incorporating elements of the courses from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the Tokyo International Marathon and Tokyo International Women’s Marathon, the modern Tokyo Marathon, and the Hakone Ekiden.
“There’s no other country in the world that appreciates and understands and is as passionate about the marathon as the Japanese,” said Rob de Castella, the four-time Australian Olympic marathoner who set a world record in Japan at the 1981 Fukuoka International Marathon.
The September 2019 Marathon Grand Championship Olympic marathon trials on the Olympic course were a huge success, the route showing off the best of Tokyo, the athletes performing in hot and sunny conditions not far off what was anticipated at the Olympics, and the public turning out along the course and tuning in to the two-network live broadcast en masse. The thrilling races gave a taste of what to expect. The marathon through the heart of the nation’s capital was going to cap Tokyo 2020 in style. Everyone could see that the home team believed they were legit medal contenders, and they started to believe it too.
Succumbing to the Heat
In a lot of ways it was the peak moment of enthusiasm and support for Japan’s home soil Olympics. So it came as about as hard a smack in the face as you could imagine to the country’s marathoning sensibilities when, a few weeks later, after negative press surrounding hot and humid conditions at the Doha World Championships, the IOC unilaterally decreed that the marathon and race walks would be moved out of Tokyo to Sapporo.
Sapporo, host of the 1972 Winter Olympics, a coastal city of nearly two million nestled in the foothills of the mountains, capital of Japan’s northernmost island prefecture of Hokkaido, a plane flight or bullet train trip of over 500 miles from Tokyo. Typically drier and around 2 degrees cooler than Tokyo in summer, the city is a snowy wonderland in winter, best known for its eponymous beer. If you think in terms of the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics, think putting the marathon in Milwaukee, maybe.
The IOC demanded a new course, and demanded it on the quick. Called in as emergency fixer was David Katz, World Athletics international road course measurer for Tokyo 2020, one of the world’s foremost experts on course measurement and design and who had previously worked on the London and Rio Olympic courses.
“Everybody was caught off guard,” said Katz. “This was a deck of cards that was handed to us. It was not our choice. Everyone in Sapporo has been great, but it’s really important to understand that the original concept was having a big city marathon in the host city. Everyone’s trying to make the best of the situation, but I think we really missed the opportunity to highlight the host city.”
World Athletics’ then-Competition Director Paul Hardy contacted Katz to start looking at options for a new course. Katz spent days poring over Google Earth to get a sense of the layout of the city and its geography and landmarks. There was talk early on of using at least part of the route of the Hokkaido Marathon, one of Japan’s most popular mass-participation races.
“I said, ‘OK, it’s good, but it’s more of a people’s race. We were looking for something with more grandeur,’” Katz said. “There’s always a balance with making it work logistically and highlighting the city or area you’re in. I want the course to be a stage that highlights the athletes, as magnificent as possible. The course is the narrative, so let’s find the course that creates the best stage for the athletes, because that’s what people are going to remember. But there’s always give and take as far as police and logistics and road closures, and we look for the best possible options out there to check off all those boxes.”
Over two trips to Sapporo, one alone and one as part of a task force, the initial options Katz developed focused on a circuit course starting and finishing at Odori Park in the heart of the city. “I designed the 7 km loop in Doha for the World Championships,” he said. “All of the kilometer marks were exactly the same on every lap, and every one of those ended up being one of the 5 km splits that would normally have timing, so we were able to time everybody every kilometer. It had never been done before, and I really wanted to preserve that. A shorter loop also meant you needed fewer team managers to handle personal refreshment stations, because now we had the challenges of bringing all those people from Tokyo.”
But local officials in Sapporo were adamant they wanted a course that could be used for a legacy event in the future, and the value that brought to the city aligned with the task force’s recommendations. Japanese media reported the inside scoop on every step of the negotiations, consensus on the first half being more or less a half marathon loop that could be used again later, the task force’s preference for the second half being three laps of a 7 km loop, the local organizers’ objections on cost and logistical grounds. Eventually there was agreement on an overall design of a half marathon plus two 10 km laps of its second half. “There was a lot of give and take,” said Katz.
Road closure permits are always a major issue, and police voiced some objections. “There’s an underpass between 12 km and 14 km, and originally the police wanted us to take that underpass for traffic reasons,” Katz explained. “The problem was, you’d be passing Sapporo TV Tower in a tunnel, and that’s a spectacular visual. I look for these things, and for me going through the tunnel didn’t make sense if we could avoid it. They had been thinking mainly about traffic shutdowns, but we were of the opinion that we had to think in terms of presenting Sapporo on the world stage. To their credit, they recognized that, and at the end of that day in December, 2019, they had a press conference and announced the course. I think we have the best course we could under the circumstances in Sapporo.”
What the Marathoners Will Run
The new Olympic course, which got an official test run May 5 as a half marathon, resembles a pinwheel with its two blades pointing to the NNW and SSE, centered around an east-west axis grounded in the heart of downtown. Starting with two shaded laps of about 1.25 miles apiece around Odori Park, the course heads south for 1.5 miles before crossing the Toyohira River, then south near the base of the nearest mountains for another mile before two quick left turns send it back to the north.
That segment from the approach to the bridge across the river to the northward turn represents the most serious ascent on the course, climbing about 82 feet in the span of 2 miles. “On the course elevation map it looks like a mountain,” says Germany’s Katharina Steinruck, who ran a half marathon PB of 1:10:43 for 4th at the test event. “But when we were actually running it was OK. You just have to train on hills.”
After the turn the course runs northward and slightly to the west for almost 5 miles, the only interruption being a brief detour to the west to cross back over the Toyohira before turning onto the eastern bank of the Soseigawa canal. Except for the bridge over the river it’s downhill the entire way, dropping 141 feet. At the test event strong winds from the southeast produced rocket-fast splits along this section.
“We had a kilometer that was a little above 3:30, then we had 3:12. It was like flying,” laughed Steinruck. Kenyan Hillary Kipkoech won the men’s race at the test event in a PB of 1:00:46 after breaking away on the climb at 5 miles. “The course had nice, wide roads and flowing corners on that part,” he said. “It worked well given the windy conditions, and the wind was more in our favor.”
Steinruck expressed concern about the degree of shade coverage along the wide streets on this suburban part of the course. “In the center of the city you have taller buildings, but outside they’re not so high,” she said. “From after 8 km to almost 16 km (5 miles to 10 miles), on the right side it was very open, a lot of space. The sun will be in the east, so maybe it will be quite sunny on that side.” Halfway through this section, back downtown in front of Sapporo TV Tower near 8 miles, the first loop enters the northern blade of the pinwheel, which runners will cover three times.
A turn to the west near 10 miles sends runners around the backside of the historic Hokkaido University, setting up the most technical part of the course. In less than one mile through the university’s campus there are eight 90˚ corners, some of them onto narrower roadways than those making up the rest of the course, sheltering runners from any potential headwind but changing the flow of the race.
“I think at the university the turns will allow for good attacks, especially toward the end of the marathon,” said Kipkoech. Katz felt the same way, flashing back to the London Olympics and how Uganda’s Stephen Kiprotich used sharp corners to break away.
“I remember exactly where he made his break. Going up a hill you made a quick right and a quick left, and just as he was approaching that hill he took off. Within 20 seconds everyone was behind him. If you study this course, there are places, especially on the grounds of the university, where you can make some moves.” Steinruck, however, who was in pursuit of Japanese Olympic marathon trials winner Honami Maeda at that point in the test race, saw it differently. “The turns didn’t come so soon one after another. You had space where you could look ahead to the runners in front and see where they were.”
Following the stretch of turns it’s a long, shaded straightaway to a final set of corners that build into the course’s other main climb, 49 feet in about 2/3 of a mile. Runners are then dumped off the campus and back onto the city streets just in time for the half marathon point.
Flattening out once off campus, a short straightaway leads back to Odori Park. On the first two laps runners will make a brief turn to the east before intersecting the course they’ve already run and turning back north at Sapporo TV Tower for another spin. The third time around it’s straight on to the finish at the park in the shadow of the tower and of Sapporo City Hall.
What the Scene Will Look Like
And there you have it, your 2020 Tokyo Olympics Sapporo 2021 marathon course. Like a lot of things, two years ago it’s not where anyone would have imagined we’d be right now. But it’s an expertly-designed course that combines sections catering to both flat-out speed and technical elements, and a tour of central Sapporo’s greenest spaces.
Those green spaces and the sides of the roads between them will probably be the emptiest in memory at an Olympics. For the marathon, race walks, and triathlon, restrictions on spectators will probably be in line with those at other major road races in Japan throughout the pandemic, a polite request from organizers to stay home and watch on TV instead of turning out along the course, staff on patrol asking spectators nicely to go home, and, for the most part, the cooperation of the general public. If the test event was anything to go by, the Sapporo course should produce top-quality racing no matter what the conditions, even if the streets are masked with silence and the rest of the Games half a country away.
Date: August 7 (Japan) / August 6 (U.S.)
Time: 7 a.m. local time / 6 p.m. EDT
[You can find the full list of women’s athletic events at the Tokyo Olympics here.]