Uganda’s Stephen Kiprotich shocked himself, his nation, and the marathon world with his gold medal run at this year’s London Games. His win over the superstar Kenyan team — two of whom, Abel Kirui and Wilson Kipsang, took home the minor medals — and the inexperienced Ethiopian squad — all three of whom dropped out — made Uganda the 17th nation to have produced an Olympic Men’s Marathon champion since the Marathon was first introduced at inaugural modern Games in Athens 1896.
Though trained in Kenya, and from the larger Kalenjin community of nilotic ethnic speakers residing in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania — thus Stephen shares the Kiprotich surname with Kenya’s bronze medalist Wilson Kipsang Kiprotich — the surprising Ugandan victory also continued Kenya’s own Olympic Marathon frustrations.
While Ethiopia leads all nations with four Olympic Men’s Marathon titles, to date, only the late Sammy Wanjiru has mined gold for Kenya, that in Beijing 2008. Notwithstanding the anomalous Kenyan Olympic performances again manifest in London, the nation’s overall dominance of the sport paced on unabated.
In 2011 Kenyan runners commanded the marathon like never before, notching the top 20 official times of the year, taking the top two spots at the World Championships, while representing 65 of the fastest 100 performances. Now, as we complete the 2012 calendar we can see that their traditional East African rivals from Ethiopia returned fire these past 12 months, placing seven in the year’s top 10 performances — though Kenyans Geoffrey Mutai and Dennis Kimetto held down the top two places (2:04:15 & 2:04:16) from their pas-des-deux in Berlin.
A deeper dive into the 2012 marathon stats shows that the two East African juggernauts combined for 89% of the year’s fastest marathons, Kenya with 58, Ethiopia with 31. In comparison the fastest American of the year, Dathan Ritzenhein, languished back in 69th position off his 2:07:47, ninth-place finish in Chicago in October, yet still making him the fourth fastest American in history. Meb Keflezighi’s Olympic Trials victory in Houston in January, a PR of 2:09:08, pushed him to # 128 for the year, while Ryan Hall’s 2:09:30 in Houston nestled him back into 154th position world-wide. The top non-African born runner on the list was Poland’s Henryk Szost in position 59 off his 2:07:39 second-place finish in Otsu, Japan in March.
According to the IOC, a sport or discipline may be included in the Olympic program if the IOC determines that “it is widely practiced around the world, that is, the number of countries and continents that regularly compete in a given sport is the indicator of the sport’s prevalence”. With millions of marathon finishers across the globe, there is no doubt the marathon is widely practiced. What is in doubt is whether that practice is at all competitive anymore.
Therefore, with tongue ever so gently in cheek, I wonder whether the marathon deserves its inclusion on the Olympic calendar in ensuing years, or should it be consigned to the non-medal “Demonstration” category, notwithstanding the Kenyan futility. After all, the Olympics has a long history of adding and subtracting sports. Continue reading