Kipsang London Bound

The turnover at the top-end of Kenyan marathon running is as remarkable as it is swift.  With so many lean and hungry athletes preparing and dreaming back home, the kings of one year are quickly deposed by the predatory scions of speed coming up from behind the next.

This year’s Kenyan Olympic selection season – comprised of the Rotterdam, Boston, and London Marathons – is testimony to that reality, and another cause for head-scratching, both for the Kenyan Olympic selectors, and for the sport as it tries, in vain, to build personalities to market to its shrinking fan base.

Today, two-time Frankfurt Marathon champion Wilson Kipsang sealed his Olympic selection with a dominate win in London, 2:04:44, just four-seconds off last year’s course record, but clear of second place by a gaping two minutes and seven seconds, the largest margin of victory in London in 30 years.

The three other provisional  Kenyan Olympians battling in London, two-time World Champion Abel Kirui, defending London champion Emmanuel Mutai, and world record holder Patrick Makau all came up well short of their expectations and hopes as non-provisional Kenyan Martin Lel took second over 2010 champion Tsegaye Kebede of Ethiopia in a kick 2:06:51 to 2:06:52.

We witnessed similar disappointments in Rotterdam and Boston.  First, Moses Mosop, last year’s Chicago Marathon record setter and Boston runner-up, could do no better than third in Rotterdam (2:05:02) behind two relatively unheralded Ethiopians, Yemane Adhane (2:04:47) and Getu Fekele (2:04:50).  Then 2011 Boston and New York City master of disaster Geoffrey Mutai wilted in the heat of Boston, dropping out after 20 miles.  Though, how much the heat and missing a drink at 25k in Boston caused his demise is something the Athletics Kenya Olympic selectors will have to determine now that all but one of their six provisional Olympians failed to deliver when the chips were down and the stakes were high.

“(Geoffrey) Mutai is more complicated,” said Kenyan-based Italian coach Gabriele Nicola after watching Boston last week.  “You don’t cancel last year. If Wilson Kipsang, Abel Kirui, Makau, or Emmanuel Mutai runs 2:04:15, then select them. If not…”

But only Kipsang managed a sub-2:05 in London.  Two-time IAAF World Champion Abel Kirui ran bravely, challenging Kipsang’s mid-race charge, but faded to sixth (2:07:56).  Defending London champion Emmanuel Mutai arrived right behind in seventh (2:08:01), and world record holder Patrick Makau dropped out before 20km.

As of today, Kipsang leads the Kenyan troops on the world marathon list, though still behind Ethiopia’s Ayele Abshero’s 2:04:23 from January’s Dubai Marathon.  Following Kipsang are Jonathon Maiyo (2:04:56 – 4th, Dubai), Mosop ( 2:05:02 – 3rd, Rotterdam), Stanley Biwott (2:05:12 – 1st, Paris), and Wilson Ekupe (2:05:37 – 1st, Seoul).   Ekupe is the perfect example of the sudden change at the top of Kenyan standings one year to the next.  Seoul this March was his first foreign race ever!

Now what? 

Geoffrey Mutai’s Dutch manager Gerard van de Veen told me that Wilson Kipsang called Geoffrey a month ago, and suggested they train together through their final cycles leading to Boston and London.

“So Kipsang came for two or three weeks to do long runs and speed work with Mutai.  For both the goal is the Olympics.”

Here were the first and third fastest men in history willing to expose themselves to a rival in order to better their chances to make the Olympic team.  Certainly worked for Kipsang, and who knows for Mutai?  The whole Kenyan selection now is all up in the air. Kind of suggests a single Trials method next time, wouldn’t you say?



  1. Josh, on point, as usual. Logic and NGBs do not often coincide. Abel Kirui is a two-time World Champion, yes, but as has been pointed out, the fields at the WC and Olympics are nowhere near as deep as the World Marathon Majors…And a precedent one year could just as easily be dismissed by federation caprice the next…I almost got the feeling before the season started that the athletes were psychologically preparing themselves NOT to make the team, irrespective of their spring races…Catherine Ndereba told me of learning she didn’t make the 2000 Olympic team while standing on line in a bank in Nairobi. The news came on the radio. And she had just beaten reigning Olympic champ Fatuma Roba in Boston that spring on a challenging, non-paced course…As you say, politics and the control is where the ultimate motivation lies…Hell, they can’t go wrong, anyway, no matter who they choose.

  2. Toni do you think AK would add Lel to their list? His record in London has been unmatched. I think last year was his debut off of multiple injuries and was added to the field very late, still placing second! Since starting the marathon in 2002 he has progressively ran faster, this last one being his PB. Just looking at his consistency in major marathons is amazing. If I got to chose the Kenyan team I’d chose Lel, Kipsang, and Mosop. Kipsang because of his previous two runs at the marathon (both wins and both almost breaking records). Mosop because his 2:03, 25&30k WR, Chicago win and record, and 2:05 are an impressive string of consistency of high performance.

  3. Hodgie,

    See my reply above (or below, depending on how these comments are arranged)…I would think Athletics Kenya, knowing it has the lion’s share of great marathoners in the world, could exact a healthy rights fee from the event wanting to stage what would be one of the great marathons of the epoch. Seems elemental and preposterously manageable…In other words, it probably has no chance of happening.

  4. Anon,

    It would simply be a matter of Athletics Kenya making an arrangement with the event of their choice to be the de facto Kenyan Trials. We’ve seen this before. The 1992 Boston Marathon served as the Kenyan Trials for Barcelona. Ibrahim Hussein won the race. We are seeing it again this year as AK is staging its 10,000m Olympic Trials in Eugene at the Pre Classic. This year’s irresolutions at Rotterdam, Boston, and London suggest a one-race trials may serve the country, team, and athletes better than the current multi-race, subjective selection process.

    1. That anon post was me (Hodgie) Toni I forgot to fill in the detail. I am envisioning one race for ALL of the best marathon runners in Kenya same as USA Trials format.
      Do you think that will ever happen?

  5. Toni say “Kind of suggests a single Trials method next time, wouldn’t you say?”

    This would be a fantastic race perhaps upstaging the Olympic Marathon but how, when, who, and where?

  6. I think I would personally take Kipsang, G Mutai and Abel Kirui which would be an amazing and well rounded team.

    That said I think it can be counted on that the Kenyan selection committee will make at least 4 or 5 of these guys if not all six (or more even) prove their mettle in some sort of a training camp before they pick the team. This of course is in no one’s best interest (other than the Ethiopians etc.), they should just pick the team and let the chosen three get ready to take it to the rest of the world and let the rest get ready for Berlin, Chicago and New York.

  7. Good stuff, Josh. The Kenyan talent pool is so deep, the world’s best marathoner probably hasn’t run one yet. That’s how strong the current is right now.Total crap shoot for the August team. Gotta give Kipsang his due, though. He came through when everyone knew what it was about. Agree about Mutai in Boston. From 10,000s to cross country, roads to marathon, he’s proven himself. Boston was wrong star date…But for third, I’m a sentimentalist. Martin Lel wasn’t named to the provisional team, but he’s all but a Londoner, three wins, back-to-back runner-ups, a good gear-shifter for the 110-turn Olympic course…His career has earned the honor when no one else stepped forward to claim the selection outright. So, Kipsang for today, Mutai for 2011, and Lel for all the years.

    1. Good words, Toni. I would love to see Lel on the team for sentimental reasons as well. When I trained with Moses Tanui’s group in Kenya, Martin train with us daily at the Kaptagat camp – great guy, hard worker and has certainly earned his due. And, as you said, for all intents and purposes he is London’s adopted son.The question is, which spring mark would Athletics Kenya value more: Mosop’s 2:05:03 third position at Rotterdam or Lel’s 2:06:51 runner up spot at London? Scotty has a point with Abel Kirui. We watched his dominance in Daegu with headsets on during our race call from Universal’s studios, there’s no doubt the guy can deliver. At first glance his spring performance would seem to take him out of the running but, if we take a step back and look at it from Athletics Kenya’s position, he may have a chance. My reasoning is this: federations are judged on international medals, AK want athletes to pass up the six figure marathon appearance fees to run their World Championships – a tough task to be sure. If Abel is named to the squad it would set a precedent for future Kenyan athletes (and their agents) debating whether to run Worlds in the year prior to the Games. “Abel made the Olympic team because he performed well at Worlds, Worlds is something we should consider.”

      The Kenyan system is notoriously political, I heard horror stories from Moses Tanui, I’m not sure how much it has changed but this much is certain: a Trials race may solve all the debate and subjectivity but it would also take the power away from Athletics Kenya – something I’m not so sure they’re ready to relinquish.

  8. Quite the quandary. The London Marathon could have made this decision easy for the folks at Athletics Kenya (AK) but, as you noted, beyond Wilson Kipsang no one cemented their claim for the Games.

    Geoffrey Mutai has been the most dominant marathoner in the world, the way he dominated the wind aided edition of the 2011 Boston Marathon and the way h dismantled the field in NYC last fall – in a race where the entire podium was under course record time – shows how good this guy is when he’s on his game. In my opinion, Boston 2012 was an aberration due to the heat. When you’re talking about upside, the man who can hit the 500 foot homerun, Mutai is the guy. In my mind, he has to be on the squad. Although his dropout in Boston hurt his chances with the selection committee, it undoubtedly will aid his preparations for the summer Games.

    The last spot is a tough one, Abel Kirui dominate in Daegu but came up short today, World Marathon Majors champ Emmanuel Mutai and world record holder Patrick Makau didn’t do themselves any favors today either. And although Mosop finished third at Rotterdam where the entire podium was within 15 seconds, I believe he has the most upside out of this group, whether or not Athletics Kenya feels the same remains to be seen. The fact that he finished behind two runners from Kenya’s East African rivals will hurt his cause. So, in short, I go with 1) Kipsang 2) G. Mutai 3) Mosop or Makau (again, the same argument for G. Mutai can be applied here for Makau but I would be floored to see AK name two spring marathon dropouts to the team – there’s no way it happens.)

    It makes you appreciate the US Trials system: one race, one day, gun goes off, top 3 make the squad. You get sick, too bad, you get injured, so sad. One day, totally objective – this is the way it should be (and it’s more marketable from a sponsorship standpoint). We saw the US system “fail” in 1992 when the best decathlete in the world, Dan O’Brien, no heighted the pole vault at the Trials and failed to qualify for the Games – much to the chagrin of Reebok executives as their “Dan and Dave” campaign when up in smoke. Nothing is perfect but a one race qualifier is the closest we can get. The US Trials system is brutal… but it’s brutally fair.

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