Kenya at the Olympics – Olympic Marathon
Marathon Gold: A Long Time in the Waiting
A usually reliable indicator of adroitness at long-distance running is the 42 km marathon. While the 3,000m steeplechase was godsend for the Kenyans, the gold medal at the Olympics marathon proved a very different huddle to cross. Paradoxically, Kenya’s confidence of strength at international marathon circuits suffered the same fate. The chance of domination in the marathon got off to a surprisingly good inception. In 1954, at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver (British Columbia) and at the inaugural Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia (in 1956), Kenya had competed in the 3-mile race and also participated in the marathon. Early distance runners like Nyandika Maiyoro had athletic strategists feverish with anticipation and potential athletes even more amped up. Kenya’s first glimpse from the marathon medal podium came at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, where Douglas Wakiihuri won silver. Well, guess what? In 1987, as a young unknown runner, he had won the men’s marathon at IAAF World Championships in Rome. Based in Japan and spotting distinctive white gloves, Wakiihuri had became the first Kenyan to win a marathon title at a major championship. The marathon at the Seoul Olympics was the final event.
It was ran in fine weather of 24 degrees, on the roads of Seoul with switchbacks of the Han River. At the 20 km marker there were 20 runners in the lead pack. True to the folk lore, the marathon is a race for survival, the number in the lead pack getting smaller and the gap wider, so that by the 35 km point there were only four runners. Wakiihuri opted to hang back and save his strength for the final kick as the rest of the pack attempted to shake off competition by injecting extra pace. At the 41 km pit, Gelindo Bordin of Italy kicked-up an inimical pace that proved too much for Wakiihuri, Hussein A. Salla (Djibouti) and Takeyuki Nakayama (Japan) who were all favourites and finished the race in that order. With a time of 2:10:32 Bordin won Italy’s first gold medal at the event, and in second place Wakiihuri won Kenya’s first medal at the marathon. In 1989, he became the first Kenyan to win the London Marathon, a distinction that lasted for 15 years until Evans Rutto began a series of victories for Kenyan men that was only edged twice since, both times by the gutsy Tsegaye Kebede of Ethiopia.
Kenya’s hopes of going one better at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona were forlorn, with Boniface Merande only managing to come fourteenth in an event won by Hwang Yang-Cho of South Korea in a time of 2:13:23. Far from a downturn, the 1996 Atlanta Games brought a glimmer of hope for marathon running, with the unlikely Erick Wainaina winning bronze for Kenya. Much like Douglas Wakiihuri before him (and with many runners after them), Wainaina’s entry to the marathon was a last minute inversion after failing to find winning ways at the cut-throat 5,000m and 10,000m. At the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000, as Kenya was seeking to bag its first gold at the marathon, Ethiopia was making its presence known on the world stage. The marathon was among the prominent cluster of distance races that the Ethiopians were throwing weight behind. Among those hoping to make a statement were Gezahegne Abera and Tesfaye Tola of Ethiopia, and Erick Wainaina and Kenneth Cheruiyot of Kenya.
Kenya Meets Ethiopia
The Kenyans had genuine reasons to be weary of the Ethiopian, for they trained well if not hadder, and, rather more importantly, Ethiopia is the highest plateau in Africa, nullifying the sway of high altitude running. The Ethiopians would prove their worth in distance running. At the 39 km mark – 2 hours into the race – Gezahegne Abera of Ethiopia broke off from the lead pack of three; Wainana and Tola left to haggle over the silver and bronze. Wainana stood his ground, chasing hard to the 41 km mark, but the tumult of Abera’s pace proved too much for day, in the end settling for another well won silver. Tola, the other Ethiopian, finished third, while Cheruiyot failed to finish the race. The Sydney Game would also shift attention from the men’s marathon toward the uplifting achievement of Joyce Chepchumba who won the bronze medal at the women’s marathon. The two wins at Sydney had inspired and put pressure back at home.
Enter Catherine the Great
The next Kenyan icon to bag a medal at the Olympics marathon was anything if not determined to get Kenya into the inner circle of the event. She sometimes looked so tired and worn during the races that it was a pain to think she would even get to the finish line, yet, when you think about elite marathon running it’s hard to look past her great achievements. An enforcement officer by training and profession, Catherine Ndereba embodied the grit, willpower and persistent hard work to succeed, and took the sport to new heights in Kenya, earning her the nickname “Catherine the Great” and one of the eminent marathoners of all time. She first burst into the limelight in 1999 at the Boston Marathon, where she finished in the ten top, making better of that achievement six months later at Newyork where she finished second. In 2000, she bagged both Boston and Chicago, setting a new world record (2:18:47) at the latter. It was the first time a woman marathoner had run a sub 2:20. Prior to Athens (2004), Ndereba had run most of the 17 major international marathons and looking good for a medal.
In spite of the fact that Catherine Ndereba bagged only silver medals both at the Athens Olympics in 2004 and at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, her contribution to Kenya’s marathon running far outweighed that elusive Olympics gold medal. Beijing Olympics would also be the first time Kenya bagged a gold in the men’s marathon – a long time in the waiting. Samuel Wanjiru, just as his predecessors Ndereba, Wainaina and Wakiihuri – all Kikuyu and not the archetypal Kalenjin runners – would prove hard work and not genetics was the key ingredient. On a hot summer day in Beijing, that had many runners struggling, Samuel Wanjiri, then aged only 21, had other aims and wits up his sleeve. At the 37 km mark he broke off from the leading pack, bringing an in-your-face determination to win gold, keeping a blistering pace on the lone charge. He raced into the infamous bird’s nest stadium by himself, raising his arms and applauding as he ran into a tumultuous welcome from an upstanding crowd. Wanjiru’s great run shattered the Olympic record to 2:06:32, convincingly winning Kenya’s first gold at the marathon. In 2010, Wanjiru returned to Chicago to defend his title. It would be his final appearance on the world stage before his untimely death in May 2011. At Chicago, he ran the marathon of his life, described by New York Time’s “as exciting as any we’ve seen in a big marathon.” At 40km it was a supreme tussle between Wanjiru and Tsegaye Kebede of Ethiopia, who’d set daylight between them and the 38,000 race participants. Kebede looked unbeatable, countering any attempt by Wanjiru to take the lead by injecting pace. With less than 0.7 km to go Wanjiru put the hammer down in an astonishing knockout bust of speed that saw him open up a gap of about 110m by the time he crossed the finish line.
It had been a busy twenty years for Kenyan marathoners at the hard-charging-event which delivered what many Kenyans undoubtedly considered a missing medal. Wanjiru had decisively broken the silence at Beijing in 2008, and the contenders of the event at the 2012 London Games must have been looking forward to it with some trepidation. Even better, they would find their winning ways and maintain the medal consistency at the Olympics marathon. Priscah Jeptoo bagged silver in the women marathon, with Abel Kirui bagging silver and Wilson Kispang bagging bronze in the men’s marathon. The truism held by the next iconic marathoner was simple; success isn’t nearly as complicated as skeptists would have you believe. The last athletic event at Rio, keeping with traditions, was the marathon: One of the most daunitng tests in all of Olympics sports. The rainy morning offered some relief for the runners, and by the 30 km mark the breakaway group of Eliud Kipchoge (Kenya), Feyisa Lilesa (Ethiopia) and Galen Rupp (USA) had steered well clear from the rest, all three of them in their first Olympic marathon. At 35 km mark Rupp was dropped as Kipchoge and Lilesa went head to head. At the 37 km mark Kipchoge was way ahead and looking comfortable, so that by the time he crossed the line (at 2:08:44) the lead was almost 1 km ahead of Lilesa who finished in a time 2:09:54. Eliud, who prefers to run his races at the front in beautiful isolation, had demonstrated his skill in anticipation of claiming the title of “greatest of all time”. Interestingly, Kipchoge had not always aimed at running the marathon. He had won bronze and silver at 5,000m, but when he did not qualify for the London 2012 Games he switched to marathon running. A decision that proved invaluable. Post Rio, Eliud would assert his dominance by winning a whooping 12 consecutive world marathons (over seven years) including breaking the record at the 2018 Berlin Marathon. In October 2019, Eliud Kipchoge became the first human to run the marathon in a sub-2, that left many in awe of his unmatched running fortitude.
The Crowning Jewel
The Rio Games were also unforgettable following the win of Jemimah Sumgong in the women’s marathon, dispelling Kenya’s omen in the event and turning the attention to an inflection point in Kenya’s women long-distance running. The transcendental effects of this win would show just days from Eliud’s supreme fit of breaking two. Bent on running an inspirited marathon and announce to the outside world the finesse of Kenyan women, Sumgong went hard at the start, perhaps to convey her intention to the field or to muster courage, before settling back in the lead pack, rarely falling past third place over the proceedings of the entire race. At the hour mark (17 kms) there were 15 in the lead pack including three Kenyans and three Ethiopians. At the two hour mark (33.5 km) the lead pack had been reduced to eight, with Sumgong the only Kenyan in contention in company with two Kenyan born Bahrain runners (Eunice Jepkirui Kirwa and Rose Chelimo) as well as two Ethiopians, the two steely Americans and Volha Mazuronak from Belarus. On the run back to the finish, having completed the three ten kilometre loops of the circuit, Kirwa made her move, stretching the pack, dropping off Volha and Chelimo. In rapid succession, it was down to only three, Ndibaba of Ethiopia and Sumgong chasing hard with 5 km to go. That’s how things stood for the next 3 km until Sumgong took the helm and Ndibaba was slowly fading away thanks to the blistering speed Kirwa had injected. She maintained the lead to the finish, crossing the line at 2:24:04 and 10.5 metres ahead of Kirwa to earn Kenya’s first ever gold medal at the women’s marathon. In October 2013, at the Chicago Marathon, fate and fortune favoured the 25 year old Brigid Kosgei who ran heroically to better Paula Radcliffe’s 17-year-old women’s marathon world record (2:15:25), completing the race in a impressive record of 2:14:04 to defend her title. Indeed the marathon had come full circle!
- Kenya at the Olympics – An Overview and All-time Medal Table
- 11 Kenyan Gold Medals in the 3,000m Olympic Steeplechase
- Kenya’s Olympic Marathon History – A Long Time in the Waiting
- Kenya’s Performance in the Olympic 5,000m & 10,000m Event
- Kenya’s Heroes and Heroines in the 800m Olympic Events