Olympic Special: Kenya Hopes for First Marathon Gold

Can Martin Lel deliver Kenya’s first Olympic marathon gold? © www.photorun.net

Drama and sensation—no other marathon race offers these elements as much as the Olympics. At the Olympic Games it’s always hard to accurately predict the medalists over 26.2 miles. Taking place in the heat of summer and often run over undulating courses, the outcome has its own particular rules.

Seldom do the pre-race favorites win. In the last four women’s Olympic marathons, the runners who had dominated the distance in the preceding years all failed. The last favorite to win gold was the Portuguese Rosa Mota in Seoul in 1988. The story hasn’t been much different for the men—who would have predicted the winners at the last four editions as the Italian Stefano Baldini (2004), Ethiopia’s Gezahegne Abera (2000), the South African Josiah Thugwane (1996) or the Korean Hwang Young-Cho (1992)?

The man who has run the fastest marathon in each of the last three years has passed up the chance of running this race. Haile Gebrselassie (Ethiopia), who suffers from asthma, is fearful that the polluted air might cause permanent damage. However, in view of the strength of the competition, his victory would not have been a foregone conclusion by any means. Without Gebrselassie the possibility of the Kenyans producing the men’s Olympic champion for the first time could increase considerably, as all three Kenyan team members are strong contenders.

Here we list eight favorites. Alongside them on the last day of the Games (August 24) runners from Japan, China and perhaps Korea should also have a say in the outcome.

Martin Lel (Kenya)
Personal Best: 2:05:15
Lel has become the runner who is the hardest to beat, at least when it comes to the big city marathons. He has won the last two London marathons, as well as last fall’s New York City race. The 29-year-old set his personal best at London in April; his 2:05:15 is the fifth fastest performance of all time. Lel belongs to the training group of the Italian manager Dr. Gabriele Rosa; the Kenyan record holder and former world record holder Paul Tergat (2:04:55) is also a member.

Sammy Wanjiru (Kenya)
Personal Best: 2:05:24
He is the new name among Kenya’s world-class marathoners. Wanjiru debuted in December, winning the Fukuoka race in 2:06:39. In London in April he improved to 2:05:24, beaten only by Martin Lel. His impressive performances at the marathon come as no surprise since Wanjiru is the man who took the world half marathon record from Haile Gebrselassie. The Kenyan, who is based in Japan, ran 58:33 in 2007 for the half. That remains the fastest of all time and suggests that Wanjiru is a long way from reaching his limits in the marathon.

Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot (Kenya)
Personal Best: 2:07:14
In recent years Robert Cheruiyot has been one of the most successful marathon runners in the world. It’s in Boston above all that the 29-year-old has made the headlines where he won for the fourth time this year. He also holds the course record of 2:07:14 there from 2006. Last year Cheruiyot won the first series of the World Marathon Majors. In 2006 he also won the Chicago Marathon. He is a member of the Dr. Gabriele Rosa training group.

Stefano Baldini (Italy)
Personal Best: 2:07:22
Baldini was a surprise winner of the gold medal in the torrid heat of Athens four years ago, the crowning moment of his career. The 37-year-old has never won any of the important big city marathons, but he is often at his peak when it comes to championships. Baldini became European champion in 1998 and again in 2006, and finished third at the World Championships of 2001 and 2003. Back in 1996 he was world half marathon champion.

Abderrahim Goumri (Morocco)
Personal Best: 2:05:30
Top of the strong Moroccan marathon team, Goumri has produced outstanding performances in high-class races in London and New York in the last 18 months. He debuted in London in 2007, and finished second, just 3 seconds behind Martin Lel. He achieved the same position again in New York where once more Lel was faster. The 32-year-old improved his time to 2:05:30 behind Lel and Wanjiru for third place in London this April.

Ryan Hall © www.photorun.net

Ryan Hall (USA)
Personal Best: 2:06:17
The American is currently the strongest non-African marathoner. He entered the elite ranks of road racers just last year, starting with the first sub-one-hour half marathon (59:43) by an American. He debuted at London in 2007 in 2:08:24. In November he easily won the U.S. Olympic Trials in New York. In April the 25-year-old returned to the London Marathon and improved to fifth place with the first-class time of 2:06:17. Ryan Hall could well produce a surprise in Beijing.

Deriba Merga (Ethiopia)
Personal Best: 2:06:38
Following the withdrawal of Haile Gebrselassie, he is likely to be the strongest of the Ethiopian marathoners. Last year Merga established himself among the world elite when he came in second in 2:06:55 in Fukuoka. In the London Marathon in April the 27-year-old improved to 2:06:38 for sixth place. Merga was fourth at the World Half Marathon Championships in 2007 in his fastest time of 59:16.

Viktor Röthlin (Switzerland)
Personal Best: 2:07:23
Viktor Röthlin’s achievements so far give a clear indication that he could spring a surprise at the Olympics. Following his win in the Zurich Marathon in 2:08:20 in the spring of 2007, he made people sit and take notice when he won bronze at the World Championships in the extreme heat and humidity of Osaka. Röthlin, who had taken second place at the European Championships in 2006, improved his Swiss record to 2:07:23 in winning the Tokyo Marathon at the beginning of this year. He was 36th at the Olympics in 2000 and dropped out in Athens four years later. Now Röthlin is aiming for the crowning moment of his career.