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LRC: Final 2008 Olympic Preview
By: John Kellogg
August 22, 2008

Men's Marathon: Can Loaded Kenya Finally Win Gold?

Saturday, August 23, 7:30 PM (East Coast Time)

Overview

The small African nation of Kenya has long been associated with success in the sport of road running. Kenyans seem to have a bearing on the outcome of virtually every major road race in the world, from road miles and 5ks to the world's most competitive marathons. Perhaps because of such prosperity in the sport, the Kenyan men have brought high hopes and potentially dominating squads to previous Olympic marathons, yet have come home with only three medals, none of them gold. Despite the ubiquitous Kenyan presence in prize money marathons, Douglas Wakiihuri and Erick Wainaina, both Japanese-trained athletes, remain the only Kenyan men to own Olympic hardware, Wakiihuri taking the silver medal in 1988 and Wainaina garnering the bronze in 1996 and the silver in 2000.

But if recent accomplishments and raw talent are any indication, Kenya's medal paucity may be about to change. Even with the withdrawal of Robert Cheruiyot, the four-time Boston winner and one-time Chicago winner, Kenya brings to Beijing perhaps the most formidable marathon team ever assembled for a global championship. Martin Lel and Sammy Wanjiru lead the yearly list with a one-two finish at the star-studded Flora London Marathon. Their times of 2:05:15 and 2:05:24 put them as the #4 and #5 performers in history. Lel has won in London three times and finished second once and has won the New York Marathon twice, showing his versatility on different types of courses. Wanjiru, still only 21 years old, is Japan-based, like Kenyan Olympic medallists Wakiihuri and Wainaina before him, and is coached by 1992 Olympic silver medallist Koichi Morishita. In 2005, Wanjiru ran 26:41.75 to set a world junior record for 10,000m as an 18-year-old. He has since lowered the all-time world bests for the road 20k (55:31) and half marathon (58:33) distances. Many fellow elites consider him the marathoner of the future, if not the present. The third member of the Kenyan squad is none other than Luke Kibet, who (while a late addition) comes to the Games as the 2007 World Champion.

They do actually run the race to determine the medallists, however, and Kenya has looked very good on paper numerous times only to have disappointing results in the Games themselves. Other nations bring strong teams and global championship experience that could trump the impressive victories produced by the Kenyans in rabbitted races.

Morocco brings a crew that could do some major damage to the field. Leading the Moroccans on time this year is Abderrahim Goumri, who moved to #6 all-time with his 2:05:30 3rd-place showing in London. The most accomplished Moroccan, however, is unquestionably Jaouad Gharib, the 2003 and 2005 World Champion, who is recognizable for continually adjusting his singlet and who normally executes a smart race if healthy. As a point of interest, both were part of a rare indoor 10,000m race in 2002, Goumri running 27:52.62 for 3rd and Gharib finishing 4th in 28:02.09, as the top four all broke the previous indoor world record of Belgium's 1972 Olympic silver medallist Emiel Puttemans.

The Japanese men would love nothing more than to deliver strong performances and soothe the sting of a disastrous Olympic marathon showing by their women's contingent, which had only two starters and one finisher. Tsuyoshi Ogata and Satoshi Osaki finished 5th and 6th in last year's Worlds to lead Japan to the World Cup team victory. They will be joined in Beijing by Atsushi Sato, who was 10th in the 2003 Worlds and established the fastest personal best on the team with his 2:07:13 last year in Fukuoka. The normally-consistent Japanese men figure to be factors; however, the women's squad had even higher finishes at Worlds a year ago and were snake-bitten with difficulties leading up to their Olympic race, so (as all seasoned runners know) preparing for and racing a marathon holds no guarantees.

Ethiopia stands at the summit of the distance running world, albeit with less depth than Kenya, and the country has a gold medal tradition in Olympic marathoning, dating back to the great pioneers Abebe Bikila and Mamo Wolde in the 1960s and resurrected by Gezahegne Abera in Sydney. Marathon world record holder Haile Gebrselassie opted for the 10,000m in Beijing, which pins Ethiopia's marathon hopes on Deriba Merga and Tsegay Kebede, both 2:06 marathoners, and Gusida Shentema, the only member of the trio with global championship experience at the distance. Merga set his lifetime best by running the fastest 6th-place time in history in this year's ultra-fast London race. Kebede won his last outing in Paris this April, where he established his PR and defeated Shentema, who finished 4th with his career best.

Viktor Röthlin (Switzerland) came on during the final stages at Worlds last year to secure the bronze medal in 83-degree heat and is quite confident his preparation has given him a chance for an Olympic medal. He ran 2:07:23 to set a national record in winning the Tokyo Marathon this February. One spot ahead of Röthlin in Osaka was Kenyan-born Mubarak Shami, now representing Qatar, who has placed consistently high in road races during the past few years. Shami also earned the silver medal at the 2005 World Half and appears to be affected less than most runners by brutal temperatures, as he produced an 8th-place finish at the 2007 World Cross-Country in the near-lethal conditions of Mombasa. His latest outing resulted in a 2:08:23 to win in Otsu this March over a number of Olympic hopefuls. Hot weather would seem to be in Shami's favor.

The defending Olympic Champion, 37-year-old Stefano Baldini of Italy, has been about as consistent during his career as is possible in the marathon, with bronze medals in the 2001 and 2003 Worlds in addition to his Olympic gold. Father Time may be creeping up on the prolific champion, who was only 12th in London and then missed a month of training with a stress fracture. Most recently, while in Beijing, Baldini has missed at least 3 days with a thigh injury and revealed that he may not race. If he does toe the line, he has the advantage of logging nearly 90,000 miles in his 25 years in the sport, illustrating his durability and responsiveness to high-level training. And track buffs cannot forget the achievement of Carlos Lopes, who set a still-standing Olympic marathon record to strike gold in the 1984 Los Angeles Games at the age of 37.

The USA has had two male medal winners in global championship marathons since the 1991 Worlds, when Steve Spence worked his way through the suffering field during the final miles in the sweltering humidity of Tokyo to find himself with the bronze. Both of the American medallists since Spence, however, were African-born athletes. Mark Plaatjes (South African-born) overtook the fading Lucketz Swartbooi in the final kilometer to win the gold in the 1993 Worlds and Meb Keflezighi (Eritrean-born) ran a smart race to get the silver in the 2004 Olympics.

While generally appreciative of the exploits of its naturalized distance runners, the US track community nonetheless harbors a lingering interest in seeing a native-born American male bring home a major championship marathon medal. The American-born men's Olympic medal drought stretches back to 1976, when Frank Shorter followed his surprise Munich gold with the silver in Montreal, and US fans wonder when the slump might end.

This year, the US faithful at long last have an American-born hope. Ryan Hall, born, raised and schooled in California, has emerged as a bona fide medal contender in the last two years. The burgeoning star sits in 7th on the 2008 world list and holds the 4th-best PR among Olympic entrants, an unheard-of pre-Olympic ranking for an American-born male marathoner for over a generation. Hall kicked off his amazing 2007 campaign with an entirely solo 59:43 at the US Half Marathon Championships in Houston. After a more modest performance at the Gate River Run 15k, critics wondered if the new marvel had already maxed out for 2007 or could hold up in the marathon, but Hall was to remove all doubts in April. In the Flora London Marathon, the most prestigious and most competitive prize money race in the world, Hall debuted with a 7th-place 2:08:24, an astounding result for a rookie marathoner in the crack field.

In 2008, Hall returned to London and produced a shocker that dwarfed even his 2007 debut in magnitude, fearlessly planting himself in the lead group at world record pace through halfway and moving to the lead to ask the pacesetters to pick up the tempo when they slowed just before 25k. After falling off briefly, then working his way back to the leaders by 35k, Hall wound up 5th in what turned out to be the fastest race in history for places three through six. His time of 2:06:17 puts him 3 minutes and 14 seconds faster than the second-fastest US-born marathoner on a loop course, trailing only Moroccan-born Khalid Khannouchi on the all-time US list. Fit, courageous and completely unintimidated by the best runners in history, Hall proved he is indeed one of the world's elite.

The other Americans, Brian Sell and Dathan Ritzenhein, have not attempted to stay with the leaders at world record speeds as Hall has, but they come in as 9th-place finishers in 2005 World Championships races, Sell executing wisely in the marathon and Ritzenhein showing up well in the 10,000m in Helsinki.

Picks

1.) Wanjiru  2.) Lel  3.) Shami

Major Contenders

Martin Lel (Kenya)  2008 Best: 2:05:15 (#4 all-time)  Global Championship Highlights: No prior global appearances in marathon, 2003 World Half Marathon Champion, 2005, 2007, 2008 London Marathon Champion, 2003 and 2007 New York Marathon Champion, 2nd in 2006 London Marathon, 3rd in 2003 and 2004 Boston Marathon

Samuel Wanjiru (Kenya)  2008 Best: 2:05:24 (#5 all-time)  Global Championship Highlights: No prior global appearances in marathon, 2007 Fukuoka Marathon Champion, 2nd in 2008 London Marathon

Abderrahim Goumri (Morocco)  2008 Best: 2:05:30 (#6 all-time)  Global Championship Highlights: DNF in 2007 World Championships, 8th in 10,000m in 2005 World Championships, 7th in 2002 World Cross-Country long course, 3rd in 2008 London Marathon

Ryan Hall (USA)  2008 Best: 2:06:17  Global Championship Highlights: No prior global appearances in marathon, 11th in 2006 World Road 20k Championships, 5th in 2008 London Marathon, 7th in 2007 London Marathon

Deriba Merga (Ethiopia)  2008 Best: 2:06:38  Global Championship Highlights: No prior global appearances in marathon, 4th in 2007 World Half Marathon Championships, 6th in 2006 World Road 20k Championships, 6th in 2008 London Marathon, 2nd in 2007 Fukuoka Marathon

Tsegay Kebede (Ethiopia)  2008 Best: 2:06:40  Global Championship Highlights: No prior global appearances in marathon, 2008 Paris Marathon Champion, 8th in 2007 Amsterdam Marathon

Viktor Röthlin (Switzerland)  2008 Best: 2:07:23  Global Championship Highlights: Bronze medal in 2007 World Championships, 14th in 2003 World Championships, 36th in 2000 Olympics, DNF in 2004 Olympics

Gusida Shentema (Ethiopia)  2008 Best: 2:07:34  Global Championship Highlights: 13th in 2005 World Championships, DNF in 2007 World Championships, 4th in 2008 Paris Marathon

Mubarak Shami (Qatar)  2008 Best: 2:08:23  Lifetime Best: 2:07:19 (2007)  Global Championship Highlights: Silver medal in 2007 World Championships, 2nd in 2005 World Championships Half Marathon, 8th in 2007 World Cross-Country, 2007 Paris Marathon Champion, 2008 Lake Biwa Mainichi (Otsu) Marathon Champion

Satoshi Osaki (Japan)  2008 Best: 2:08:36  Global Championship Highlights: 6th in 2007 World Championships, 3rd in 2008 Otsu Marathon

Luke Kibet (Kenya)  2008 Best: 2:12:25  Lifetime Best: 2:08:52 (2005)  Global Championship Highlights: 2007 World Champion

Stefano Baldini (Italy)  2008 Best: 2:13:06  Lifetime Best: 2:07:22 (2006)  Global Championship Highlights: 2004 Olympic Champion, bronze medals in 2001 and 2003 World Championships, 1996 World Half Marathon Champion, 9th in 10,000m in 1997 World Championships

Jaouad Gharib (Morocco)  2008 Best: No mark  Lifetime Best: 2:07:02 (2004)  Global Championship Highlights: 2003 and 2005 World Champion, 11th in 2004 Olympics, silver medal in 2002 World Half Marathon Championships, 9th in 2001 World Half Marathon Championships

Atsushi Sato (Japan)  2008 Best: No mark  Lifetime Best: 2:07:13 (2007)  Global Championship Highlights: 10th in 2003 World Championships

Marilson dos Santos (Brazil)  2008 Best: No mark  Lifetime Best: 2:08:37 (2007)  Global Championship Highlights: 10th in 2005 World Championships, 7th in 2007 World Half Marathon Championships, 2006 New York Marathon Champion

Tsuyoshi Ogata (Japan)  2008 Best: No mark  Lifetime Best: 2:08:37 (2003)  Global Championship Highlights: Bronze medal in 2005 World Championships, 5th in 2007 World Championships, 12th in 2003 World Championships

Brian Sell (USA)  2008 Best: No mark  Lifetime Best: 2:10:47 (2006)  Global Championship Highlights: 9th in 2005 World Championships, 4th in 2006 Boston Marathon, 6th in 2006 Chicago Marathon

Dathan Ritzenhein (USA)  2008 Best: No mark  Lifetime Best: 2:11:07 (2007)  Global Championship Highlights: No prior global appearances in marathon, 9th in 10,000m in 2005 World Championships

  

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