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50th Honolulu Marathon hopes for the return of Japanese runners

Honolulu Marathon 2021
Marco Garcia/AP
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FR132414 AP
Emmanuel Saina, of Kenya, crosses the finish line winning the Honolulu Marathon, Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021, in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)

Japan's announcement about relaxing some COVID-19 travel restrictions is encouraging news for Dr. Jim Barahal, president of the Honolulu Marathon — which relies heavily on runners and revenue from Japan.

But it remains to be seen if that will boost Japanese participation in the premier race marking 50 years this December.

"This is my 35th year as president of the Honolulu Marathon, and I think this looks to me like the most challenging since my first year as president in 1987," Barahal said.

With about four months to go until the race kicks off on Dec. 11, Barahal is watching registration numbers closely.

"The entries are actually incredible for every region other than international and specifically Japan," he said. "Our entries total, non-Japanese right now for the three events are about 17,000."

In 2019, nearly half of the 33,255 runners were Japanese. This year, just over 2,000 people from Japan are currently registered for the marathon, according to Barahal.

"We're down 73% in Japan on a comparable date in 2019. And since Japan has been our key market economically, that's pretty rough stuff for us," Barahal told HPR.

About 80% of the marathon's revenue usually comes from Japanese sponsorships and race entries. Barahal says that money allows the marathon to invite world-class runners like Emmanuel Saina of Kenya, who won in 2021.

"In a way, the Hawaiʻi runners get a chance to participate in this mega sporting event both at a participation- and a competitive-level thanks to the revenue that comes in from Japan," he said. "It's going to be an incredible event this year, but we are hoping that things can pick up at least a little from Japan."

Barahal says the marathon does not receive financial support from the local government or the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority.

"Japan Airlines has been amazing as they continue to stay with us and even gave us sponsorship money when the event wasn't held, and certainly last year when there were essentially no Japanese," he said. "So they stood by us, as has Mizuno. So we're grateful for that."

Another factor is the Japanese yen, which has weakened to two-decade lows against the U.S. dollar. On Thursday, the dollar was trading at about 136 yen.

"(Japanese) entrants also enter in yen, so we work with our Japanese partners, they collect the money in yen and pay us in dollars. You can see the problem right there," he added.

The 50th Honolulu Marathon kicks off on Dec. 11. Click here to register.

Another large local sporting event, the Ironman World Championship returns to Kailua-Kona on Oct. 6 and 8.

This interview aired on The Conversation on Aug. 25, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
Sophia McCullough is HPR's digital news producer. Contact her at news@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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