Only those who ran the fastest jumped the farthest and exerted themselves more than their competitors are typically remembered in history for track and field competitions at the Olympic level. Shizo Kanakuri, who is cherished for having the worst official time of any Olympic marathon runner in history—taking more than 54 years to complete a race he began in 1912—appears to be an exception to that rule.
Though primarily recognized in the west for his aforementioned Olympic record, Kanakuri is one of the best athletes in his native Japan and is frequently referred to as "the father of the Japanese marathon." In fact, Kanakuri was such a gifted athlete that when the 1912 Stockholm Olympics opened, he was the overwhelming favorite to win the marathon after learning he had run a possible world record in a qualifying round in Japan the year before, clocking in at 2:32:45. (Whether this was a real-world record or not is up for debate because the distance Kanakuri ran was never formally measured; some people think he only ran 25 miles rather than the required 26.2 for the record.). Nevertheless, his long-distance running ability was well known and established by the time the 1912 Olympics rolled around.)
There was a lot of pressure on Kanakuri to perform well because he and his teammate represented the first Japanese athletes to ever compete in the Olympics. Kanakuri was one of only two athletes from Japan that year to compete in the Olympics (the other was a sprinter named Yahiko Mishima).
Not wanting their skills to lapse, Kanakuri and his teammate reportedly kept themselves in shape by endlessly running laps around the boat, and later, when they traveled by rail, by jogging around the train station whenever it stopped. The journey to Sweden was reportedly an incredibly difficult one that involved traveling by both boat and rail over the course of about two weeks.
Unfortunately, one of the men in Japan's Olympic team became ill when they arrived in Sweden; whether it was Kanakuri or Mishima is unclear from the records that have survived. Kanakuri also struggled with the local cuisine, which made it harder for him to prepare for the race.
The temperature in Stockholm was an unusually warm 32 °C (nearly 90 °F) on the day of the Marathon. Kanakuri decided to run in traditional Japanese cloth shoes called tabi despite the unfavorable weather. Although he made an effort to strengthen these shoes with rough canvas, they were still unable to adequately shield his feet from the gravel and other debris that were strewn across the marathon's course.
Kanakuri also had issues with his, shall we say, unusual running style by modern-day standards. You see, Kanakuri typically avoided drinking while running because it was widely believed at the time that perspiring made one feel more exhausted. Although this may seem strange, it was at least an improvement over the previous methods of running marathons, which involved abstaining from all liquids and taking small amounts of strychnine.
In any case, around the halfway point Kanakuri collapsed from heatstroke due to dehydration and heat.
Around this time, according to Kanakuri, he happened upon a garden party being held in a wealthy banker's villa and made the decision to grab a drink with the host after noticing that they were both sipping orange juice. After about an hour of rest, Kanakuri made the decision to drop out of the competition. He took a train to Stockholm and stayed in a hotel there until his boat headed back to Japan arrived. When Kanakuri returned to Japan, he sent the banker a mysterious box containing a scroll with Japanese writing on it as a thank-you gift for letting him recover in their villa. The scroll became a priceless remembrance of the occasion for the family. (More on that in the section with bonus facts.)
Now, Kanakuri's decision to withdraw from the race was not unusual in and of itself because the heat caused more than half of the 69 runners competing that day's marathon to fail to complete it, with many of them collapsing like Kanakuri did. Additionally, one man, Portuguese runner Francisco Lázaro, lost his life as a result of the race after collapsing about 8 kilometers from the finish line with a body temperature of an astounding 42.1 °C (107.8 °F). He lost consciousness again, and the following morning he passed away. He had wax applied to his body, it was later discovered, to protect it from sunburn. Sadly, it also made it difficult for him to properly perspire, which contributed to his passing.
Kanakuri, who was humiliated by having to drop out, didn't inform the race organizers of his withdrawal but instead went home. Because of this, they were concerned that Kanakuri might be in danger and reported his disappearance to the Swedish police, who made fruitless efforts to find him. They were aware that many of the racers had passed out and that one eventually died.
Strangely, despite participating in the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp and the 1924 Olympics in Paris, Kanakuri was officially listed as missing for about 50 years in Sweden (he was also set to run in the 1916 Olympics, but WW1 got in the way).
In his native Japan, Kanakuri's failure in 1912 drew harsh criticism from the media, and in his diary, he expressed his self-disgust. Some media coverage, however, was more positive, praising the young athlete for even being able to compete on par with the best in the world with such little training. He had trained for less than a year and was only 20 years old when he completed the marathon.
Despite this early setback, Kanakuri went on to play a significant role in the development of long-distance running in Japan. He founded the Tokyo-Hakone Round-Trip College Ekiden Race, a relay race for college students that contributed to the nation's enduring love of the sport and earned him the title "the father of the Japanese marathon." Kanakuri stopped playing the sport in 1924 and went on to teach geography.
If it weren't for the fact that Kanakuri's disappearance turned into something of an urban legend in Sweden, making him known as "the missing marathoner" in Stockholm, it's likely that his Olympic performance in 1912 would have gone unremembered.
The Swedish National Olympic Committee was shocked to learn that Kanakuri was still alive in 1962, and they made a note of it in their records.
Kanakuri's name was mentioned among a group of businessmen in 1967, five years later, as they worked to raise money to send Swedish athletes to the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. Then they had an original thought: why not have Kanakuri "finish" the marathon in front of the world's media to gain some free publicity and draw sponsors to their cause?
Kankuri was invited to Sweden under the guise of commemorating the 55th anniversary of the 1912 Olympic games out of concern that he wouldn't travel there if he knew what was going on. This invitation was odd, but Kanakuri gladly accepted it.
The extent of the legend that Kanakuri had sparked by going missing all those years ago, as well as the hoax, was only revealed to him when he arrived in Sweden. Some lighthearted versions even suggested that Kanakuri was still running 50 years later because he had missed the first checkpoint.
With a positive outlook on the situation, Kanakuri agreed to complete the race on camera. At 76 years old, he reportedly had the stamina to sprint the final 100 meters.
Representatives of the Swedish Olympic Committee asked Kanakuri if he would like to say a few words about setting a world record for the slowest marathon ever run after reading out his official finish time to the assembled press: 54 years, 8 months, 6 days, 5 hours, 32 minutes, and 20.3 seconds. After pausing to reflect, the veteran athlete limped up to the microphone and said:
"The trip was quite far. I got married, had six kids, and had ten grandchildren along the way."
At the age of 92, Kanakuri passed away in 1983. The top prize for the relay he started was named after him in recognition of his contributions to long-distance running in Japan.