Kenya’s marathon team announced: No World # 1 or World Record holder

From Ross Tucker

An interesting point from last week was the announcement of Kenya’s Olympic marathon team. On the women’s side, there’s perhaps less controversy, with the brilliant Mary Keitany the first name down, followed by Edna Kiplagat and Priscah Jeptoo. They showed form and class in London, and perhaps only Sharon Cherop, who won Boston the week before, can feel a little hard done by.

But on the men’s side, it was always going to be a mighty difficult selection. The difficulty is illustrated by this fact: The current world record holder (Patrick Makau) and 2011’s top marathon man (Geoffrey Mutai) are both OUT of the Kenyan squad, and will not run in the Olympic Games.

The three eventually named are: Wilson Kipsang, who, by virtue of his London win was probably the “easiest” choice to make. He’s joined by Abel Kirui, twice world champion, but only sixth in London, despite running a brave race to follow and attack with Kipsang at halfway, and finally Moses Mosop, who won Chicago last year, but who was pretty handily beaten by two Ethiopians in Rotterdam recently, despite talking up a world record before the race.

Dealing with Kipsang first, he must be the favourite for Olympic gold now. He won London by over two minutes, with a ferocious mid-race burst, and has won marathons in fast times in the last 11 months, including that 2:03:42 second fastest of all time performance. So no controversy with his selection.

The debate is around Mosop and Kirui. And let’s be clear – if they go on to win the Olympic Gold, it would not surprise me in the least. Kirui in particular has shown his ability to race in championships with two commanding World Champs gold medals. In London, Kirui looked magnificent up to about 30km, but paid for the 14:09 surge between 20 and 25km, and ended up going backwards and ‘crawling’ home with a 8:33 final 2.2km! Had he steered clear of the mid-race surge, it’s not difficult to imagine that he’d probably have run a 2:05, maybe low 2:06, and that would have made his selection seem a lot more reasonable. His aggression off a fast pace cost him, and he ended up running outside 2:07, very slow by today’s extra-ordinary standards. Still, I’d have Kirui in my team, because off a slow pace to halfway (think 65 minutes), he’s shown tactical experience and quality.

Mosop is the third name. Despite the talk of a world record in Rotterdam, he not only missed that time, but was beaten into third by two Ethiopians. Mosop clearly has tremendous speed and pedigree, having won Chicago in a course record, and chasing Mutai home in Boston with his 2:03:06 (which has really been put into perspective by what has happened since). Before Rotterdam, his coach Renato Canova talked up how nothing but a world record would get Mosop onto the team, and that seemed accurate.

But then Boston dished up a super hot day, with temperatures on the tarmac rising to almost 100F (38 C), and Geoffrey Mutai was the victim – stomach cramps forced him to abandon the race after halfway, and so he failed to stake his claim in the minds of the Kenyan selectors. His case, then, was his 2011 form, and also his pedigree at the shorter distances – he was the Kenyan Cross-country champion in 2011. Those credentials would have seen me pick Mutai, I have to say, mostly because of his ability to win non-paced marathons (Mosop has not won a marathon without pacemakers, and has only one win in three starts). Both Boston and New York in 2011 saw Mutai dominate strong fields without pace-setters. His New York win, for me, was particularly impressive, and I’d have put Boston down as a bad day, an anomaly perhaps caused by the heat, and gone with Mutai instead.

Makau too failed to finish his “audition”, and he dropped out after only 16km in London. The reason, apparently, is an injury, and I guess that may have played into his omission from the team.

The other factor to consider, for both Mutai and Makau, is that they don’t have a marathon in their legs as we move into the final three months of preparation before London. That’s the other reason I would have picked Mutai – the time frame is a little tight, and the likes of Kipsang, Kirui and Mosop will have to produce another world class marathon on 14 weeks after their last. This is possible, and we may see athletes perform with even tighter calendar constraints later this year when a lot of Olympic runners also race New York or Chicago, but it’s another factor in an intriguing mix. It may well be that success in the Spring counts against runners come Summer.

At least the question is out the way for Kenya, and the three men who will try to defend Wanjiru’s Olympic crown in London. And as I said, it is quite conceivable that any one of the three can win gold, and that they can sweep the podium. I doubt it, because the Ethiopian challenge this year is very strong, and even the gold medal will be strongly contested, but it’s a super strong team. I would have chosen Mutai, myself. Your thoughts welcome, as usual.

On the women’s side, in terms of the Olympic race, the fascinating question is to see how Liliya Shobukhova deals with the Kenyans, particularly Keitany. Shobukhova is actually faster than the Keitany, by virtue of her 2:18:20 in Chicago in 2011. So her recent form is good, the manner of her Chicago wins is impressive – front-running and very strong second half, like Keitany. But Keitany must be the favourite, simply because her final 10km in London, in about 31:35, were extra-ordinary. But that will be a tremendous battle.

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