Meet Japan's New National Hero

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Naoko Takahashi won the marathon in Olympic-record time

In the home of sumo wrestling, marathon running is big. So big that tiny Naoko Takahashi — 163 cms and 47 kg — has already become a national hero. She staked a claim for a place in the pantheon of Japanese sport with her gold medal–winning performance in Sunday's Olympic marathon. Not only did she win, but she recorded a new Olympic record time of two hours, 23 minutes, 14 seconds and scored Japan's first-ever women's athletic gold.

The 28-year-old, who took up the sport because "it looked like fun to me," had defeated the most competitive field to have sought Olympic gold since the women's event was introduced at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Takahashi's main competition was to have come from two Kenyans, Tegla Loroupe and Joyce Chepchumba. As it turned out, it was Romania's Lidia Simon, who had taken bronze in last year's World Championships, who stayed with Takahashi when she broke from the field shortly before the 35-kilometer mark, and held on for the silver medal. Chepchumba, who spent most of the race looking round for Loroupe, her flatmate and training partner who trailed in 13th place, took the bronze.

In an exceptionally fast race, with 14 runners finishing within two hours 30 minutes, Chepchumba and Simon both finished inside the previous Olympic best time. As she entered the stadium for one lap of the track Takahashi's race was nearly cut short by an overzealous official who stepped out with the finish ribbon, but realized her mistake and let the runner past to complete the race. Japanese journalists thronged the athlete afterward, wanting to interview their new heroine and her coach for special late editions of their newspapers.

Takahashi, who won the Asian Games marathon in 1998 and was hotly tipped for the Seville World Championships last year until injury ruled her out, told them: "I have been aiming for this victory for a very long time and I feel a little sad that I have reached my objective. Tomorrow," she added, "I will have to set my eyes on another goal."

Today the tiny runner is the biggest thing in Japanese sport.