Culture

The Olympic Marathoner Who Went Missing

The story of a runner who went missing during the 1912 Olympic marathon and recorded the world's slowest time by several decades. He’s now celebrated as Japan’s ‘father of the marathon.’

This week, we are all missing the Olympic marathons. Here, for light relief, is the intriguing story of a runner who went missing at the Olympic marathon, eventually recorded the world’s slowest time by several decades, and is also revered in his own country as the father of the marathon.

Japan’s First Olympic Marathoner

Japan had athletes at the Olympic Games for the first time at Stockholm in 1912, with one sprinter and one marathon runner. A young man named Shizo Kanakuri was one of the first in Japan to try the new sport of marathon running. The dedication the marathon demands suited the Japanese, whose country had a long history of running messengers, the hiyaku, and even a sect of ultra-running Buddhist monks. They conducted a trancelike “moving meditation” by running more than fifty miles a day for seven years around Mount Hiei.  

Kanakuri had real ability, as at just age twenty he ran 2:32:45 for the 40km/25 miles Japanese trial. (That was also the Olympic distance that year.) Fortunately, the trial was run in cool conditions and Kanakuri had only minor setbacks from his belief that it was harmful to drink before and during the race. The notion that water or perspiration somehow caused weakness was common worldwide until the 1950s. But Kanakuri would pay for it later. 

Kanakuri traveled from his home in Tamana, in the south of Japan, to Stockholm by ship and train, an eighteen-day trip. He was accompanied on the Trans-Siberian Railway by his sprinter team-mate, Yahiko Mishima. Kanakuri kept some vestige of fitness by running up and down the station platform whenever the train stopped. (I once did the same when crossing America by train.) By some accounts, he also had to care for Mishima, who fell ill on the trip. With limited sleep and strange food, it was far from an easy journey. 

Race Day Failure

Shizō Kanakuri in a top hat holding flowers.
Shizō Kanakuri returning from the 1924 Olympics Games. Photo: Wikicommons

The Olympic race was unusually hot for Sweden, close to 90F/32C. Eventually thirty-four runners, half the field, dropped out, and one died — the only death to ever occur in an Olympic marathon. Kanakuri was among the DNF’s. He had problems with his frail Japanese shoes, but, more seriously, his refusal to take in water left him severely dehydrated. It’s unclear whether or not he actually collapsed around the 27 kilometer mark as has been noted by some reports. By his later account, he gate-crashed a garden party in the yard of a rural house alongside the course, lured by the sight of people drinking orange juice. The kindly family cared for their uninvited guest until he had recovered enough to take a train or tram back to Stockholm. 

Ashamed of his failure, he decided against reporting back to the stadium. With no team manager, language would have been a deterrent, and probably he did not want to lose face. Whatever the reasons, Kanakuri took himself home to Japan. He sent his kindly garden party hosts a Japanese scroll, which is still extant. With the Swedish authorities, however, he was listed as a missing person, probably because of concern that he might be another Olympic death. He remained on those police books for half a century. 

The World’s Slowest Marathon Time

Unaware of his strange status, Kanakuri continued to run, as well as playing a major role in laying the foundations of Japan’s successful marathon tradition. He was selected for the 1916 Olympic marathon, but those Games were canceled by World War 1. He competed in the next two. In 1920, on the long Antwerp course (42.7km, 26.53 miles) he placed sixteenth in 2:48:45, with two other Japanese close behind in twentieth and twenty-first. In Paris in 1924, when it was again warm, he failed to finish, as did his two teammates. 

But in Sweden, Kanakuri still counted as missing. In 1967, looking forward to the 1968 Olympics, a Swedish television crew tracked him down in retirement at Tamana, and invited him back to Stockholm. On March 20, 1967, now age 75, in his overcoat, he completed the 1912 Olympic course. Or to be precise, he ran through the finish line. Whether he covered the entire distance on foot from where he stopped in 1912 seems a grey area. But no one minds. His final time of 54 years, 246 days, 5 hours, 32 minutes, 20.3 seconds (the point three is nice) is accepted by the Guinness Book of Records, with its tongue slightly in its cheek, as the world’s slowest marathon time. 

“It was a long trip. Along the way, I got married, and had six children and ten grandchildren,” he told the media at the finish line. He was also a geography teacher, so his Olympic travels probably proved useful. 

Kanakuri’s Legacy

The world’s slowest marathon record will keep Kanakuri as a half-comic celebrity internationally, but in Japan he is increasingly revered for his leadership in the development of athletics and marathon running. Among other innovations, in 1917, he initiated the first of the Ekiden relays that are now such a feature of Japanese running. He established some Ekiden for students, as a way of introducing them to long-distance racing. By the 1932 Olympics, the Japanese team was good enough to place three in the top ten. When the next Olympic year began, 1936, Japan (enhanced after having absorbed Korea) claimed seven out of the ten fastest marathons ever run, an almost Kenyan-level dominance. 

So Kanakuri, who died in 1983, age 92, deserves his fame. The awards in the Hakone Ekiden are now named after him. He features as the hero in a 2019 Japanese television historical drama, part of a series created to build interest for the (now postponed) 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. Rather than being merely the Missing Man, Kanakuri is known in his marathon-loving country as “the Father of the Marathon.”