Hot summer venues have been the norm for Olympic Marathons for decades, and with the simultaneous growth of a highly moneyed road racing circuit across the world, the richest department of the sport of Athletics, the top exponents of the classic distance have tended to avoid the Olympic Games, preferring the prize purses offered by major city races held during cooler autumn and spring months.
Haile Gebrselassie, the World record holder, is the most high profile name to have opted out of Olympic contention this time preferring a few weeks after the Games to return to the course in Berlin, Germany where last September he established his global mark (2:04:53). The two-time Olympic 10,000m champion will however race his former track specialty in Beijing.
Ethiopia will in any case be well represented particularly by sub-2:07 men Deribe Merga (2:06:38) and Tsegaye Kebebe (2:06:40), the latter the Paris Marathon champion after an enormous breakthrough this year.
To judge by the line-up that Kenya have put together, the world’s most prolific marathon running nation – just under 50% of the world’s sub-2:15 clockings have been set by them – Ethiopia’s east African neighbours are intent on breaking their Olympic marathon title duck. Whereas Ethiopia can claim four golds, the latest in 2000, Kenya have just two silvers and bronze in their possession.
Leaving the reigning World champion Luke Kibet at home, Kenya has brought some of their big city racers to head the fight for Olympic laurels. Leading the charge for glory will be Martin Lel, the three-time London and double New York winner, whose 2:05:15 in London this year makes him the fastest of the Beijing entrants.
Sammy Wanjiru, the Fukuoka winner from 2007, is of course the World Half Marathon record holder, and finished just behind Lel in London this spring (2:05:24).
Completing Kenya’s volley of marathon quality is the three-time Boston champion Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot (2:07:46).
Underlining the quality of the Beijing start list, as well as Lel and Wanjiru, a third sub-2:06 runner has also entered. Abderrahim Goumri of Morocco was third (2:05:30) in the London race behind the Kenyans. The 32-year-old’s time was a national record, and he was also second the previous year in the British capital, so cannot be discounted in the medal chase.
Leading the charge from the two continents which prior to the African emergence in the 1960s had virtually dominated marathon running, Ryan Hall of the USA and Viktor Röthlin of Switzerland are America and Europe’s realistic contenders for gold with 2:06:17 and 2:07:23 qualification times to their credit.
Hall slashed his PB by over two minutes in finishing fifth in London this year, and notably has a sub-60mins half marathon national record to his credit. Just as memorable was the way he strolled to a 2:09 Trials win in New York last autumn, his ease of running provoking much hype in the USA which is seeking its first gold since Frank Shorter in 1972.
By contrast Röthlin has already medalled globally with his surprise bronze in Osaka last summer, and his 2:07 win in Tokyo this year has reinforced his credentials as a major player.
But if we are covering the ‘old’ athletics world then mention has to be made of the defending Olympic champion Stefano Baldini. He might have been beset by injuries since he retook the European title in 2006, but do not overlook the Italian who is both a supreme championship and major city racer. His 2:13:06 qualifying time doesn’t promise much but Baldini has a PB of 2:07:22 (2006) which makes him a threat, and as the winner in Athens he knows everything about what it takes to conquer extreme marathon running conditions.
Another principal contender in major races during the last few years, is two-time World champion Jaouad Gharib of Morocco who has not run the distance this year, his qualifying performance coming from 2007 (2:07:54). Another ‘old stager’ with the highest repute is former New York winner Hendrick Ramaala of South Africa (2:11:44).
There are plenty of other ‘maybes’ including Asian Games champion Mubarak Hassan Shami of Qatar, who took the silver in Osaka, or for that matter any of the Japanese trio – Tsuyoshi Ogata and Satoshi Osaki, who finished fifth and six in that 2007 World championship race, or the experienced Atsushi Sato.
Brazil will be well represented by Marilson dos Santos, the 2006 New York winner, his participation will bring back memories of his compatriot’s Vanderlei de Lima’s dramatic race in 2004 when he hung on for bronze after being physically assaulted by a defrocked Catholic priest who burst from the crowd to impede him while he was leading the race.
And they say the marathon runners have the air quality to worry about in Beijing!
Chris Turner for the IAAF
Women’s Marathon Preview
Can Paula Radcliffe possibly pull off the Olympic Marathon title? The birth of a child, a toe-injury, a stress fracture, a spider bite, the memory of Athens 2004, are just some of the obstacles Radcliffe has cleared leading into Beijing’s Marathon in one week from Saturday. Those “obstacles” seem insurmountable, especially when combined with the heat and humidity in Beijing, which certainly do not favour Radcliffe’s size (compared to her rivals, that is).
Yet Radcliffe is there, having arrived in Macau, where the UK team is doing their Beijing preparations, this week. She arrived with a full entourage, including physio, husband and daughter, and is committed to running in Beijing. But can she win it?
I really hope so. I think that of any athlete, Radcliffe deserves Olympic success. The world record holder, London, New York and World Championship marathon winner, she is one athlete who (if ever this were true) deserves an Olympic medal (of any colour, though Gold would seem appropriate). However, as much as I’d love for it to happen, I do feel that it’s highly unlikely, given what has gone on in the months leading up to this race.