On Monday, the organizers of the Tokyo Marathon announced that this year’s race will only feature elite athletes, due to concerns about the outbreak of the coronavirus strain known as COVID-19. “We cannot continue to launch the event within the scale we originally anticipated,” a statement on the race website reads. This is something of an understatement; instead of the 38,000 runners who were originally slated to compete, the 2020 edition of the Tokyo Marathon will only feature about 200 athletes when it takes place on March 1. It is the second time that a World Marathon Major has been canceled since the series was founded in 2006; the 2012 New York City Marathon was called off in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
With over 500 confirmed cases as of Tuesday, Japan has the second-highest number of COVID-19 infections—behind China, where over 70,000 known cases of the virus have been reported since the outbreak began last December. The vast majority of these have been in China’s Hubei province, whose capital, Wuhan, bears the unenviable distinction of being the epicenter of the current contagion. Prior to Monday’s news, several major running events had already been canceled in China, including February’s Hong Kong Marathon and the World Athletics Indoor Championships, which were scheduled to take place in Nanjing in mid-March. (On the unsanctioned race front, there have been reports of quarantined Chinese residents doing ultra marathons in their apartments; one man allegedly ran 6,250 loops in a single room, like a demented hamster. It would be funny, if it weren’t also totally dystopian.)
Nonetheless, the cancellation of the 2020 Tokyo Marathon, at least as a mass participation event, feels like a particularly ominous benchmark; Tokyo is Asia’s most prestigious marathon and few, if any, countries are as besotted with distance running as Japan. What’s more, with only five months to go before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the country is sure to be hyperconscious of how it is presenting itself as a tourist destination. Monday’s decision, in other words, was certainly not made lightly.
Brett Larner, who is the founder of Japan Running News and has lived in Tokyo since 1997, told me that the impact of the coronavirus was barely perceptible in day-to-day life in the Japanese capital, although there had been an uptick in people wearing surgical masks as a preemptive measure. As for reactions to the cancellation of the marathon, Larner said that responses have been mixed.
“I would say that people here tend to be pretty risk-averse, so with the Tokyo Marathon Foundation having made that tough decision on the grounds of trying to mitigate risk, I think that most people could understand it,” Larner says, while adding that a number of people were upset by the Foundation’s decision not to refund the 16,200 yen (~$150) entry fee for domestic runners. (Apparently, entry fees would have been refunded in the event of a natural disaster and some people were debating whether a prospective epidemic might qualify.) “I also expect a lot more races to follow Tokyo’s lead, as it’s the premier marathon in Japan,” Larner added, citing a few instances where this has already happened (i.e. the Neyagawa Half Marathon in Osaka and the Fukaya City Half Marathon, both of which were slated to take place later this month). Japan is also home to the world’s largest women’s-only marathon, the Nagoya Women’s Marathon, which has 24,000 entrants signed up for this year’s iteration on March 8. So far, there has been no word on whether the event will take place as planned.
Although 500 cases of infection obviously represents a tiny percentage of the total Japanese population (around 120 million), the country’s authorities have clearly decided to err on the side of caution. Among other things, and as Larner pointed out to me, Naruhito, the recently enthroned Japanese emperor, is calling off public festivities for his 60th birthday next week. (As a general rule of thumb, you know things are serious when the emperor cancels his party.)
Of course, in the age of media histrionics, it can be tempting to regard the decision to cancel the Tokyo Marathon as an overreaction. At the time of the announcement on Monday, there had only been one single confirmed COVID-19 death in Japan.
However, when I spoke to Dr. Britta Lassmann, the program director at the International Society for Infectious Diseases, she told me that—media hype notwithstanding—she felt that the race organizers had made the right call. Despite having far fewer deaths, for now, COVID-19 remains much more enigmatic than the flu.
“We are not yet sure what we are dealing with, and what the implications would be on a global level if this becomes a pandemic,” Lassmann says. Among other things, she pointed out that a large-scale international event like the Tokyo Marathon runs the risk of exposing visiting participants who come from countries with inadequate infection prevention infrastructures. At the most cynical level, it would be terrible PR for the Tokyo Marathon if it were tied to the first known cases of COVID-19 in previously unaffected nations. Beyond that, part of the challenge of containing the virus is that prospective carriers can potentially be oblivious to their infection.
“There are things we don’t know yet, but part of the complexity with the COVID-19 outbreak is that it looks like that people who are asymptomatic, or have only mild symptoms, are still very much able to transmit the virus to others. This adds a very complicated element to the screening procedures,” Lassmann says. “So I think the organizers made the right decision—even as I recognize that it was a very hard decision to make.”
With the 2020 Olympics on the horizon, Japanese authorities can only hope that Monday’s announcement is a rare aberration—and not a sign of things to come.