While everyone is focused on the fastest, best, and strongest in the Olympics no one ever talks about the slowest, worst or weakest. It makes sense of course. The Olympics is a competition of elite-level athletes. Those who win are the best of the best. Those who lose fade into obscurity. Yet one man faded into obscurity for so long that he became a legend as well. That man is Shizo Kanakuri.
Shizo Kanakuri is regarded as the father of marathon running in Japan. He competed in three Olympics with his best result being 16th in the Olympic Marathon in the 1920 games. Yet it is the 1912 Olympics that he is far more famous for.
The 1912 Olympics were the first Olympics that Japan took part in. They sent two athletes, Shizo Kanakuri and a sprinter, Yahiko Mishima. The athletes had to travel by boat and rail for two weeks to get to the event in Sweden and were not in the best condition for a race by the time they arrived. Yet expectations were high of Kanakuri. In a qualifying race, he had recorded an impressive marathon time of 2 hours, 32 minutes 45 seconds. It was an unofficial world record at the time. It was not an official world record as the race wasn’t officially measured. It later came out that the course was likely only 40km long, not the required 42.2km.
At the time this wasn’t known and it was believed that Kanakuri did well. The event was very tough. It was 32 degrees at the time and the athlete had not prepared well. At the time he also followed strict preparation before and during a race. The food in Sweden did not suit him and while that could be a difficult factor, the sun was tougher on him than almost* anyone else. At the time it was his belief that sweating made you more tired, so he did not drink any water before or during a race, to reduce sweating! I say that it was tougher than him than almost anyone because one other athlete had the idea of covering his body in wax as protection from the sun, however, it didn’t allow him to breathe. He passed out and later died because of his error.
Kanakuri did not die from the race but he did become exhausted quickly. Somewhere along the race as he was severely dehydrated he spotted a party taking place in a nearby home. The fresh orange juice caught his eye and he called in for a drink. The family was happy to help and gave him orange juice and food until he felt better. After an hour he was ready to leave but decided not to run any further. He went back to Stockholm and awaited the boat to take him back to Japan.
He was not the only person to fail to finish in that race. Many others gave in. The only difference was they notified race officials that they had quit. Kanakuri didn’t. As one person had already died they became extremely worried about him and declared him missing among Swedish authorities. He happily went home without knowing.
He would compete in two more Olympic games after this event but the Swedish authorities obviously didn’t realize. They assumed he was still missing. It was only 50 years later that a Swedish journalist realized he was still alive. As a publicity stunt to raise funds for Olympic athletes they invited Kanakuri to come and finish the marathon as he had never been officially disqualified. He did so and took a record time of 54 years, 8 months, 6 days, 5 hours, and 32 minutes. Not close to his personal best. When asked how he felt about breaking the world record for the slowest marathon time. Kanakuri replied with his famous wit “It was a long trip, along the way I got married, had 6 children and 10 grandchildren. The incredible athlete died at the age of 92 and died as a legend in both Sweden and Japan.