World leaders named to team, but can they reach the podium in Beijing?
The big-city Spring marathons are long gone, and in fact we are moving into Athletics season now with the Hengelo meeting already behind us. But in their wake the spring marathons left a pile of dominant Kenyans. Namely, Martin Lel, Sammy Wanjiru, and Robert Cheruiyot. Those three runners were named officially to the Kenyan marathaon team, but in fact between Paris, London, and Rotterdam, fully six Kenyans broke 2:07, and Cheruiyot, with a 2:07:46 in Boston may well have broke 2:07 on any other course. We have gone on about Martin Lel as perhaps the best marathoner ever, and we were most impressed with how Cheruiyot decimated the field from the front and ran away with the win in Boston, but even with this impressive trio lining up in Beijing can Kenya bring home the gold?
A dearth of Kenyan marathon medals
Although we associate Kenyans with middle-distance and marathon dominance---Kenyan men have won 16 of the last 20 Boston races---to date no Kenyan has won marathon gold, and in fact they medaled only thrice, with two of those medals from the same runner:
- Douglas Wakihurui, 1988 Silver medalist
- Eric Wainaina, 1996 Bronze medalist
- Eric Wainaina, 2000 Silver medalist
But the really interesting thing is that when you examine the dominant middle-distance Kenyan athletes from the 1980's and 1990's, we see that very few, if any of them, "graduated" to the marathon. It seems the only Kenyan track star to move on to the marathon is Paul Tergat. However, in previous years it also does not seem as though the Kenyan men have shown such incredible depth and form in the marathon going into the games. Have Kenyan men won big races like Boston and London in Olympic years? Boston, yes, but London, no:
- 1988 - Henrik Jorgensen, DEN
- 1992 - Antonio Pinto, POR
- 1996 - Dionicio Ceron, ITA
- 2000 - Antonio Pinto, POR
- 2004 - Evans Rutto, KEN
But perhaps this is the year of the Kenyan Olympic Marathon champion? We are not betting men, but if we were, the smart money is on "no." The history of the Olympic Marathon race tells us that it is too unpredictable. In fact going into the Athens race in 2004, Paul Tergat was hands down the fastest man on the line, posting his then WR of 2:04:55, which was nearly 90 s faster than South Africa's Gert Thys. Yet both of these runners were well off the pace and finished far out of contention.
This unpredictability is likely the result of a number of factors, perhaps most importantly that nations can field a maximum of only three runners in the race. This makes the odds a bit more even for any country to win gold. Next is the nature of the Olympic marathon courses. Seldom are they flat and straight, and instead tend to wind thru the host cities with no regard for hills and climbs. This changes the racing tactics away from a fast "time-trial" like event and more into a "wait and see" race of attrition. Finally, the environmental conditions tend to be hot and humid---it is the Summer Olympics, after all---which as we mentioned here previously does not suit the Kenyans due to their choice to remain at altitude, where it is temperate and dry, during their Olympic preparations.
But there is hope. . .!
Young Sammy Wanjiru, he of blistering half-marathon speed and a 2:06:01 average for his first two marathons, is based in Japan and trains with a Japanese coach. Should he win Olympic gold, he will be the youngest Olympic marathon champion as he will be only 21 when he races in Beijing this summer. Lel is the King for now, but Wanjiru gets the nod from us as the best hope for a Kenyan marathon medal due to his training base in Asia.
And with only about 70 days remaining until the opening ceremonies, the marathoners (and other athletes, too) will be entering into a crucial phase of their training. It takes some time to make training adaptations, and so they will be aiming for two periods of very hard training now from which they will benefit only in August.
In the meantime we will watch with much interest how everyone performs in the IAAF meets in June and July as this will provide some insight into their current form. Watch for the perennial favorites who are not producing top times, as running so fast now would indicate peaking too early, and it is difficult to maintain such great form for over two months. Instead we should see them near the top, maybe winning, but with times off their best performances. In any case it will be a most interesting lead up to Beijing, and be sure to join us here for all the analysis along the way!