The former world record holder had entered the Japanese race to achieve the required Olympic qualifying standard of 2hr 15min and to run quickly enough to secure his place in the three-man Ethiopian team for London.
But his time of 2hr 8min 17sec means he is only the 14th fastest Ethiopian over 26.2 miles this year, while three of his countrymen ran under 2hr 5min at last month’s Dubai Marathon — performances that would make them medal contenders in London.
It raises the possibility that fans lining London’s streets this summer will be denied the chance to see one of the true legends of the sport, whose record includes two Olympic 10,000 metres gold medals, four world 10,000m titles, nine marathon victories and the distinction of being the first man in history to run a sub-2hr 4min marathon.
Given Ethiopia’s fierce rivalry with neighbouring Kenya, currently the dominant force in marathon running, it is unlikely there will be any room for sentiment in the Ethiopian selectors' deliberations, which means Gebrselassie’s dream of an Olympic swansong may require him to run another marathon in the spring.
With a mere five or six weeks’ recovery time, that would be a tall order for any athlete let alone a 38 year-old whose body has shown signs of wear and tear in recent years, though it was something he did not discount after yesterday’s race.
“I could run another marathon in two weeks,” he said. “I felt fantastic here for the first 30 kilometres, then had some problems at the end of the race.
“Sometimes you are too ambitious. This can happen. My target was 2-05 today but it didn’t work out that way. On the last downhill, I started to get some pain in my back. The last 5km was the worst I’ve ever run.”
Gebrselassie had led the race with three miles to go before he was caught by Kenyan Michael Kipyego, who surged ahead to win in 2-07-37. He was also overtaken by Japan’s Arata Fujiwara and Ugandan Stephen Kiprotich.
Kipyego could hardly believe he had upstaged the great Ethiopian, saying: “I won but you can never compare anyone with Haile. He’s the king of the marathon. I salute him.”
But Gebrselessie’s reign already looks over after a race that provided further evidence of his diminishing powers.
In November 2010, he failed to finish the New York Marathon after being troubled by a knee problem and at a tearful press conference afterwards he announced to the world that he was quitting the sport.
That decision was swiftly reversed, though he was forced to withdraw from last year’s Tokyo Marathon through illness and then he failed to finish the Berlin Marathon last September after developing breathing problems.
The loss of his status as the world’s greatest marathon runner was underlined in the German capital as Kenya’s Patrick Makau triumphed in a world record of 2-03-38, obliterating Gebrselassie’s previous mark of 2-03-59.
Should Gebrselassie consider a final throw of the dice by running a spring marathon to secure an Olympic spot, it is highly unlikely he will choose the Virgin London Marathon on April 22.
He suffers from acute hay fever and has said previously that he would never again run in London in the spring after the high pollen count in 2007 provoked a strong allergic reaction and forced him to pull out mid-race.