Tokyo Marathon restricted to elite athletes over coronavirus outbreak

After a case of the viral respiratory disease was confirmed in Tokyo, the organizers said in a statement, they could not “continue to launch the event within the scale we originally anticipated.”

By Talya Minsberg

The Tokyo Marathon, one of the world’s largest races, with an estimated 38,000 runners, has been restricted to elite runners because of new cases of the coronavirus confirmed within Japan, organizers announced Monday.

After a case of the viral respiratory disease was confirmed in Tokyo, the organizers said in a statement, they could not “continue to launch the event within the scale we originally anticipated.”

The marathon, scheduled for March 1, will be held only for elite runners and wheelchair athletes, a field that now includes about 200 participants.

More than 300,000 runners had applied to run the Tokyo Marathon, which draws hundreds of thousands of spectators and more than 10,000 volunteers annually. The race is one of the Abbott World Marathon Majors, a collection of the six largest marathons in the world.

One runner, Christopher Warnick, was still planning on participating until he heard Monday morning’s news. “Yesterday I ordered enough surgical masks and Purell for a week and was basically planning to troop it out,” he said.

Warnick, from Brooklyn, said the race would have been his sixth Abbott Marathon Major before he turns 60 in April. Running all six major marathons is a bucket list item for many distance runners. “That’s definitely disappointing,” he said, “but at the end of the day people’s health is more important than a race.”

Japan has the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases outside of China, most of them linked to a Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantined off the coast. The viral outbreak has sickened more than 72,000 people in Asia and killed at least 1,868 people as of Tuesday morning.

The Tokyo Marathon is the latest in a growing list of athletic events that have been canceled, postponed or relocated as the outbreak spreads, and the last-minute changes are raising questions about whether the epidemic will affect Tokyo’s upcoming hosting of the summer Olympic Games.

The Hong Kong Marathon, scheduled for Feb. 9, was canceled. The World Athletics Indoor Championships in Nanjing, China, were postponed from this March to March 2021. An LPGA Tour event scheduled to take place in early March on Hainan Island in China was canceled. The Chinese Grand Prix was postponed. World Rugby Seven Series events scheduled to take place in Hong Kong and Singapore in March have been postponed to October. Three qualifiers — in China, Japan and the Philippines — for the 2021 International Basketball Federation Asia Cup have been postponed.

“This is yet another example of how this coronavirus is having global impacts beyond the immediate and traditional concerns of public health,” said William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “It’s having economic and social ramifications that are profound.”

A week ago, Tokyo Marathon organizers announced new safety measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, including handing out alcohol-based hand sanitizers and surgical masks. In a statement, the organizers asked participants to monitor their body temperature and “refrain from participating in the event” if they had a fever or were “experiencing symptoms of respiratory illness.”

Some runners had already decided not to participate in the race, citing fears over the outbreak.

The last time a major marathon was canceled was in 2012, when the New York City Marathon was called off two days before the race in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Tokyo Marathon organizers said 2020 participants could defer their entry to the 2021 race but would have to pay the fees again. They were not offered refunds for this year’s race. 

Attention is quickly shifting toward the Tokyo Olympics, scheduled for July 24 to Aug. 9, which are expected to draw an estimated 11,000 athletes and 600,000 overseas visitors.

At a gathering in Tokyo last week, the Tokyo Olympics organizing committee president, Yoshiro Mori, insisted the Olympics would go on. “I want to again state clearly that cancellation or postponement of the Tokyo Games has not been considered,” he said. “Let me make that clear.”

But the elephant in the room is looming. The Olympic torch relay is scheduled to begin next month in Fukushima, traveling through Okinawa, Kyoto and Hokkaido before it turns south toward Tokyo.

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