I Was Bored, So I Watched the Crazy 2004 Men’s Olympic Marathon

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Throwback Thursday #12

By Jonathan Gault
June 25, 2020

Welcome back to Throwback Thursday. With limited live events during the coronavirus quarantine, I’m plumbing the depths of YouTube and watching/sharing my thoughts about one classic race per week. If you missed any of the first eleven installments, click here.

This week’s race is the 2004 Olympic men’s marathon. In the US, it’s famous as the race in which Meb Keflezighi reignited American marathoning by earning the US’s first men’s Olympic marathon medal in 28 years. Globally, it’s significant for the attack on leader Vanderlei de Lima of Brazil with four miles to go. But there’s plenty more to explore, including some classic Athletics Kenya hijinks, an Austrian dude racing with a fuel belt, and an underappreciated all-time great close by eventual winner Stefano Baldini of Italy.

Set the YouTube time machine to August 29, 2004, in Athens, Greece, and strap in…

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0:00 Opening shots of marathon broadcasts don’t get much better: the Acropolis, perched high above Athens.

The 2004 Olympics were the first held in Athens since the inaugural modern Olympics in 1896, and the organizers did several cool things to honor that history. One of the coolest: the marathon would start in the town of Marathon and finish in Panathinaiko Stadium (the same one used for the 1896 Games), following Pheidippides‘ legendary route. It would also start at 6 p.m. — the last time an Olympic marathon was held in the evening.

I’m not sure why this doesn’t happen anymore. First off, an evening/night marathon would be cool (provided it finishes before 2 a.m.). All major big-city marathons start in the morning, so a night race would be a neat visual changeup — many of the Olympic host cities look awesome lit up at night, especially next year’s host, Tokyo (unfortunately that ship has sailed and the 2021 Olympic marathons will be in Sapporo). Second, a night race would literally be cool: since the Olympics take place in summer, holding a race out of the sun’s glare can only help the athletes.

I’m officially launching my campaign for the 2024 Olympic marathon to be staged at night. Paris is the City of Lights, for crying out loud. Just look at this image and tell me you wouldn’t want it as the backdrop for the Olympic marathon. It’s a no-brainer.

4:01 Even with the 6 p.m. start, it’s still tough conditions for running: 30 C (86 F) and sunny (the sun won’t set for another two hours). Unlike a morning start, however, conditions will improve as the race goes along.

4:54 As the list of entrants scrolls across the screen, I notice only two Kenyans are running, which leads to me spending the next hour doing a deep dive on how this came to be. You’re not going to believe this (sarcasm), but it involved Athletics Kenya making some dumb decisions.

Kenya named a team of three for Athens: Paul TergatErick Wainaina, and Sammy Korir. Tergat and Korir seemed like smart picks: Tergat had broken the world record with his 2:04:55 in Berlin the previous fall, with Korir finishing just one second behind him. Wainaina, who raced mostly Japanese marathons, was a more controversial pick. He had medalled in the previous two Olympic marathons and won both of his marathons in 2003 (albeit against weak competition in Nagano and Sapporo), but had finished just 8th in Tokyo in February — behind three other Kenyans. Two out of three ain’t bad though, right?

Well, there was another problem: AK named the team before the 2004 spring marathon season (which they did again in 2020!), during which, all hell broke loose.

First, Tergat was forced to withdraw from London with a calf strain. Korir did run London — and ran well — but lost. To another Kenyan (Korir was 2nd in 2:06:49) .

The winner of London in 2:06:19 was Evans Rutto, who had won his debut in Chicago the previous fall and was now the hottest marathoner in the world. Complicating matters further: another Kenyan, Timothy Cherigat, ran 2:10:37 to win Boston comfortably on a day when temperatures surpassed 80 degrees. Yet another Kenyan, Felix Limo, ran 2:06:14 — the fastest time of the spring — to win Rotterdam. Both Limo (Berlin) and Rutto (Chicago) would go on to win majors that fall.

Adding injury to insult, Korir got hurt and withdrew from the Olympic marathon just 10 days before the race. He was not replaced.

Neither Wainaina (7th) nor Tergat (10th after contending through 35k) embarrassed themselves in Athens, but Kenya would have to wait another four years for its first Olympic marathon champion.

This whole episode made me wonder how Eliud Kipchoge would have done in this race. Kipchoge was already a world-class distance runner by 2004 — he earned the 5,000m bronze medal at these Games — but didn’t take up the marathon until 2013. Would he have been able to step right in and win? Or were those years of seasoning on the track necessary to build the strength and experience for his domination of the event?

5:18 A few other notable entrants: defending world champ Jaouad Gharib of Morocco, Stefano Baldini of Italy, the 1998 European champ and bronze medalist at the 2001 and 2003 Worlds, and Lee Bong-ju of South Korea (1996 Olympic silver, 2001 Boston champ).

The US team consisted of Dan Browne (doubling back after taking 12th in the 10k nine days earlier), Meb Keflezighi (who owned a 2:10 pb and had finished 9th and 7th in his two previous major marathons before taking 2nd at the US Olympic Trials), and Trials champ Alan Culpepper.

5:59 Decently hilly course for the Olympic marathon.

6:40 Not a Vaporfly in sight. It’s kind of refreshing not to have to worry about shoes during this race.

9:32 The two guys on the far right clearly false-started. Just saying.

15:00 There’s always that one guy who tries to open an early gap in a major marathon. This time it’s Morocco’s Khalid El-Boumlili. He’s reeled in by two miles.

17:00 Our first glimpse of the Americans, who are pretty far back in the pack and. They’ve gone for contrasting looks: Culpepper’s singlet almost swallows his shorts while Meb’s jersey is rolled up like a 1980s college football star. Have to give Meb the nod. Bare midriffs were everywhere in 2004.

25:38 The great thing about this broadcast: it has the entire race, uninterrupted, in pretty good quality. The bad thing: no commentators. I know this race gets good later, but let me tell you, watching a bunch of guys run a 15:57 first 5k with no commentary is pretty darn boring.

33:23 The sponge station proves to be very popular. It’s a hot one out there.

42:57 This is the third different 10k split we’ve been given — the first said 30:24, the second 32:01, and now 31:54. Let’s go with 31:54, since it’s the one listed on World Athletics’ result page. There are still 20-30 guys in the lead pack, which I would expect considering they’re only on 2:14 pace.

44:30 Fuel belt alert! Next time someone tells you fuel belts are for hobby joggers, tell them you saw an Olympian wearing one — in the Olympic marathon, no less.

44:37 Credit to Buchleitner here. The motocam has been getting very up close and personal with some of the athletes. But rather than freak out after realizing the cameraman has spent the last five seconds zooming in on his ass, he just smiles and waves.

57:14 No one is more eager to get his drink than this guy, Ali Mabrouk El Zaidi of Libya, who makes a concerted effort to head to the very front of the pack and signal to the guy holding his drink. Consequently, no one is more upset when he fails to make the handoff — turning and throwing his hand up in frustration.

57:39 I did not see this coming. The volunteer who failed with the bottle handoff has somehow run past all the subsequent drink stations and catches up to El Zaidi almost 200m later to complete the handoff. Now that is Claus-level dedication (of course, Claus wouldn’t have made a mistake in the first place).

1:06:15 Around 11 miles, we finally get some non-bottle-related action. South Africa’s Hendrick Ramaala, a 2:08 guy and the winner in Mumbai in February, opens up a 22-second gap on the field, which had featured 43 guys within five seconds of the lead at nine miles.

1:11:01 Whoops. Was the producer testing out the “New WR” button? Here’s a hint: stay away from it during the Olympic marathon. You won’t need it.

1:14:46 Just before 20k, the pack catches Ramaala and a new man assumes the lead: 35-year-old Vanderlei de Lima of Brazil, who is about to become very important.

He’s an unlikely man to be leading during the second half of the Olympic marathon. He owns a 2:08:31 pb, set back in 1998, and though this is his third Olympics, he finished just 47th in Atlanta and 75th in Sydney. In 2003, he finished 4th in Hamburg and 12th in Fukuoka. Though it’s been a while since he’s raced a major marathon, he enters the Olympics on the strength of a win in Hamburg in 2:09:39 — his fastest time in four years — and has a few recent hot-weather marathon wins (Sao Paulo in 2002, Pan American Games in 2003).

Still, a win here would be a major upset and blow anything he’s done the rest of his career completely out of the water. It would also be huge for Brazil. Though the South American country had had some marathon success (Brazilians won four straight Chicago Marathons from 1991-94, and Ronaldo da Costa broke the world record in 1998), the country’s best finish at an Olympic marathon was Luíz Antônio dos Santos‘ 10th in 1996.

1:17:07 de Lima hits halfway at 1:07:23 with a 15-second lead over a roughly 25-man chase pack.

1:27:10 “I have an idea! Let’s film them through an olive wreath!”

Sometimes, these ideas sound better on paper than in reality. This one doesn’t even sound that great on paper.

1:36:19 Just shy of 17 miles, de Lima continues to lead comfortably. The chase pack is down to seven: the world champ Gharib, the WR holder Tergat, Wainaina, Baldini, Ambesse Tolosa of Ethiopia (Paris winner in 2:08:56), Jon Brown of Great Britain (4th at 2000 Olympics), and Meb. A few minutes later, they’re joined by Japan’s Shigeru Aburaya and Toshinari Suwa.

You’ll note I haven’t said Meb’s name much so far — that’s because he’s been tucked in for most of the race, expending as little energy as possible. Smart.

1:45:05 de Lima hits 30k in 1:35:03 — a lead of 46 seconds — after running his last 5k in 15:30, the fastest of the race so far. This shot gives you an idea of some of the hills on this course. It’s not easy.

1:50:31 This is a key moment of the race: just before 20 miles, Baldini, Tergat, and Meb break from the chasers and strike on out after de Lima, who is starting to look just a little bit tired after leading for 7+ miles. Based on their resumes, you’d have to favor Tergat…

1:53:05 How hot was it in Athens that day? They didn’t just have misting machines, but literal showers for athletes to run through.

2:00:51 35k: de Lima just ran his fastest 5k of the race, 15:06, but actually lost ground as Baldini is leading an aggressive charge from behind, clocking 14:47 for his last 5k (the entire course is downhill from 30k on, which allowed some of the top guys to really get rolling). As a result, de Lima’s lead is down to 28 seconds.

2:01:48 As Baldini and Keflezighi keep their foot on the gas to catch de Lima, Tergat cracks, his last chance at Olympic gold slipping away.

The world record holder, five-time World XC champ and all-around distance legend Paul Tergat getting dropped by the runner-up at the US Trials? Yes, this is a shock.

2:03:01 Sadly, it’s one of the most famous images in Olympic marathon history: de Lima, just four miles from Olympic glory, is shoved off the course by this asshole, whom I will not name because he doesn’t deserve any more attention.

The incident costs him perhaps 5-10 seconds and leaves de Lima visibly shaken, grabbing at his leg and shaking his head in frustration.

The consensus opinion (and I agree) is that this incident did not cost de Lima the race — Baldini and Meb were already closing him down, and both wound up comfortably ahead of him by the finish (Baldini by 76 seconds, Meb by 42) — but it’s impossible to know exactly how much the attack threw off de Lima. The biggest shame: de Lima, running his best marathon on the biggest stage of his life, didn’t get a fair shake because some selfish idiot decided to intervene. After this race, he’d run seven more marathons, never finishing higher than 5th.

2:03:33 de Lima takes a look back and, for the first time in a while, sees two people coming for him. The attack seems to have escalated his fatigue; de Lima is visibly hurting now. The question isn’t if he’ll get caught, but when.

2:09:39 Just over a mile later, we have our answer. Baldini, who looks fantastic, opens up a gap on Meb and then, with just over two miles to go, passes de Lima, who is too exhausted to put up much of a fight. The rest of the race is pretty easy to predict.

2:05:51 Meb is 10 seconds back of Baldini at 40k after passing de Lima for second. He’s looking good and moving well, splitting an impressive 14:21 for the downhill 35-40k segment. Problem is, Baldini is giving him no opportunity to make up ground — he has just run his last 5k in 14:12.

For context, the fastest split Kipchoge recorded during his marathon WR was 14:18. Granted, Baldini is running with a healthy downhill, but 14:12 at the end of the Olympic marathon in 80+ degree heat is some spectacular running — and the biggest reason why de Lima probably wasn’t winning this race even if he wasn’t attacked.

2:18:50 Since Panathinaiko Stadium is ancient (the first version was constructed in 330 BC), there’s no tunnel to emerge from…but damn if that isn’t a great shot of Baldini entering the stadium.

2:20:30 Baldini covers his final 2.2k at 4:28 mile pace to win by 34 seconds in 2:10:55. He averaged 4:38 pace from 30k to the finish, truly one of the greatest closes in Olympic history.

2:21:01 A historic silver medal for Meb in 2:11:29. It is the first Olympic medal for a US men’s marathoner since Frank Shorter‘s silver in 1976 and would signal that the dark days of US marathoning in the 1990s and early 2000s were finally over.

2:21:20 Considering all that’s happened to him, de Lima is in remarkably good spirits as he approached the line for his bronze. Ultimately, he would become just the 11th recipient of the Pierre de Coubertin medal, awarded by the IOC for sportsmanship. Twelve years later, he would light the Olympic cauldron in Rio as Brazil hosted the Games for the first time.

2:21:57 Hard not to feel bad for Great Britain’s Jon Brown, who finishes fourth for the second straight Olympics.

2:35:27 Final results. Tergat, who had a rough last few miles, dropped all the way to 10th, just ahead of the world champ Gharib.

This remains the only Olympic marathon since 1980 not to feature an African in the top six — and a reminder of how the Olympic marathon, with its hot weather and three-athlete-per-country limit, can produce unexpected results. No one would have predicted a podium of Italy, the United States, and Brazil in 2004. We can only guess what Sapporo has in store…

***

That’s it for this week. Check back next Thursday for the next installment.

Previous:
*TBT #11: 
I Was Bored, So I Watched Craig Mottram Battle Augustine Choge In Melbourne at the 2006 Commonwealth Games
*TBT #10: 
I Was Bored, So I Watched Eliud Kipchoge & Kenenisa Bekele’s Duel at 2005 World XC
*TBT #9: 
I Was Bored, So I Watched Joan Benoit Samuelson Win the 1984 Olympic Marathon
*TBT #8: I Was Bored, So I Watched Alan Webb Run 3:53 as a High Schooler at the 2001 Prefontaine Classic
*TBT #7: 
I Was Bored, So I Watched the 2008 NCAA Cross Country Championships
*TBT #6: 
I Was Bored, So I Watched the Men’s Steeple at the 2003 World Championships
*TBT #5: I Was Bored, So I Watched the 1983 World Cross Country Championships
*TBT #4: 
I Was Bored, So I Watched Galen Rupp, Matt Withrow, & Jenny Simpson at the 2003 Foot Locker Championships
*TBT #3I Was Bored, So I Watched the Insane 2007 World Cross Country Championships in Kenya
*TBT #2: I Was Bored, So I Went Back and Watched Ritz, Webb, & Hall Battle at the 2000 Foot Locker Cross Country Championships
*TBT #1: I Was Bored, So I Went Back and Watched the 1998 NCAA Cross Country Championships


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