Israeli Chemtai Salpeter wins Tokyo Marathon amid coronavirus fears

Kenya-born runner scores 8th-best time ever in women’s marathon as city curtails participation in race due to spreading disease, but insists Olympics will go ahead

Lona Chemtai Salpeter of Israel crosses the finish line to win the women's category of the Tokyo Marathon in Tokyo on March 1, 2020. (CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP)
Lona Chemtai Salpeter of Israel crosses the finish line to win the women's category of the Tokyo Marathon in Tokyo on March 1, 2020. (CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP)

Israeli runner Lonah Chemtai Salpeter was the first woman to cross the finish line at the Tokyo Marathon Sunday, a race that was scaled back as part of Japan’s efforts to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

Salpeter finished the race in 2 hours 17 minutes and 45 seconds, setting a new women’s record for the course. She beat second-place finisher Birhane Dibaba of Ethiopia by 50 seconds.

The finishing likely punches Salpeter’s ticket for the 2020 Olympic Games in the same city, and sets her up as a strong contender for a medal.

The score is the eighth-best of all time in women’s marathon, and only five others have ever completed a race in a better time. It shaved more than two minutes off the Israeli national record, which had also belonged to Salpeter.

Lona Chemtai Salpeter of Israel reacts after crossing the finish line to win the women’s category of the Tokyo Marathon in Tokyo on March 1, 2020. (Du Xiaoyi / POOL / AFP)

Born in Kenya, Salpeter moved to Israel in 2011 and fought for citizenship for years. She eventually received Israeli citizenship in March of 2016 after winning the Tel Aviv marathon, allowing her to compete for Israel in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, shortly after the birth of her son, Roy.

She failed to complete the marathon in those games, however, after suffering sharp pains in her chest, likely due to breastmilk she was carrying.

Related: The mom who beat the odds, and the bureaucrats, to become Israel’s top runner

In September, she collapsed during a marathon in the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar, due to extremely high heat, become one of 23 running runners who failed to finish the race.

In 2017, Salpeter won the Florence Marathon, crossing the finishing line in 2 hours, 24 minutes, 17 seconds, setting an Israeli record.

Salpeter already held the Israeli records for 1,500, 3,000, 5,000 and 10,000 meters, and the half marathon.

Israeli runner Lonah Chemtai Salpeter competes in the women’s marathon at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar, September 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Birhanu Legese of Ethiopia was the top finisher in Sunday’s marathon, with a time of 2 hours, 4 minutes and 15 seconds, 34 seconds ahead of compatriot Sisay Lemma.

Sunday’s race was expected to have 38,000 participants but was limited to elite runners due to concerns over the outbreak of the virus in Japan.

The race, which doubles up as an Olympic trial for Japanese marathon runners, was limited to just over 200 participants.

The Tokyo marathon is one of the biggest sporting events to be affected by the coronavirus. Authorities in Japan have cancelled or postponed various other sporting events over concerns of spreading the virus.

Some spectators lined the streets of the Japanese capital but there were far fewer people watching than in past years. The government has asked people not to gather in large crowds.

Japan’s domestic soccer league has cancelled games through the first half of March while Japanese baseball teams are playing exhibition games ahead of the regular season at empty stadiums.

With Tokyo set to host the 2020 Olympics, Japan has taken extensive steps in a bid to halt the spread of the outbreak.

Tokyo organizers and the IOC have repeatedly said the Tokyo Games will go ahead as scheduled and that they are following the advice of the World Health Organization.

The Olympics, which start on July 24, are set to gather 11,000 athletes in Tokyo, followed by the Paralympics beginning Aug. 25 with 4,000 athletes.

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