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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Can a Kenyan win the 2008 Olympic Marathon?

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
So in spite of utter dominance on the road circuit, and in the middle-distance events on the track (especially the steeple chase), the Kenyan men are without marathon gold. Admittedly, only 13 different countries have taken Olympic gold since 1896 (25 races), and only two men have won twice. So it is not an event that one country appears to be able to dominate across the years. But this seems strange given how dominant the Kenyans have been at the shorter distances, too, as the faster runners over 5000 m and 10000 m distances tend to be the faster runners in the marathon. So one would think that the runners would filter through from the shorter events and continue to dominate over the marathon distance.

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
And Rutto was not selected for the 2004 Olympic Marathon team, with Tergat and the veteran Eric Wainaina the only two Kenyans lining up for that race, which is interesting in itself that Kenya had only two runners in that race when all countries were allowed a maximum of three. It is unclear why the medalists in the 800 - 10000 m never moved up to the marathon. Perhaps there was no incentive to carry on training so hard as those athletes had achieved financial and other success already, and most likely secured their retirement at an early age.

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!


Anonymous said...

Correction: Henrik Jørgensen is Danish not Norwegian.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Anonymous, and thanks for the correction.

I cannot recall now where I found that info, but it could have been an oversight on my part anyway.

I have updated the post to reflect his correct nationality, and apologies to all of our Danish readers out there!

Kind Regards,

Anonymous said...

Maybe the reason for Kenyans not winning a gold medal in the Marathon has to do with financial incentives. The Marathon Major series offers a lot of money to the competitors, whereas an Olympic Games victory is just a great honor but without any direct financial benefit.

One might argue that there are indirect financial benefits through sponsoring, but I do not believe Kenyan athletes can get the same sponsoring in their country which is very poor in comparison to the other more developed countries. For example Baldini's gold medal is a great asset to him because he is Italian and my guess is that he gets a substantial amount of money from sponcors such as Asics. In fact I saw an ad documenting his training by Asics. So the return value of investing in a gold medal is not the same for all athletes.


The Sports Scientists said...

Hi George, and thanks for the comment.

Interesting point, although first we must realize that the Marathon Majors are a new invention in the past few years.

However, your point about less lucrative sponsorships in Kenya is well taken. I recall an interview with Frank Shorter prior to the 1998 Boulder Bolder (or Bolder Boulder?). The crux of the interview was why the Kenyans dominate running.

Shorter's take on it was that there is huge financial incentive for them on the road running scene. One good solid year of successful racing can potentially set them up for life back in Kenya. Several key wins plus some top three finishes could secure enough cash to buy enough land and cattle back in Kenya to settle down for life.

I have never seen or heard any other direct evidence for that, and in fact have never heard any Kenyans express that point of view, but Shorter's argument was that there is much more incentive for them compared to the American runners.

After all, what does one good year of racing get you if you are American? Maybe several hundred thousand in the bank, but that is hardly enough to retire on in the west!

Thanks again for joining the discussion.

Kind Regards,

Anonymous said...

I am a kenyan athlete and i am sure this year the marathon podium is for kenya.I f you have noted all the world's best marathoners from kenya never take part in world championship coz of the little cash given for the marathon event.Olympics this year is much different since the cash invovled is like similar to the one they earn in big city marathons around the world thats why you see the athletes chosen never declined the offer to race in the summer games.Lel,Cheruyoit have past been chosen for world championship marathons but they have decline the offers and went ahead to win big city marathons like the year 2005.Its all about the money also thier sponsor eg nike is going to payu the athletes heavily is they win.Wanjiru is the latest sensation in marathon and we have been trianing with him in Nyahururu and believe it he is giog to deliver the gold to Kenya.