In light of his other-worldly 2:01:39 marathon world record in Berlin last Sunday, there are some who are hailing Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge as the G.O.A.T, the greatest of all time male distance runner. Berlin was arguably the crowning achievement of his career, but does that mark added to the rest of his curriculum vitae make a case for GOAT? Let’s dig in and see.
GOAT Marathoner? Yes, indisputably, with ten wins in 11 starts, which include an Olympic gold medal and a 2:00:25 fastest ever exhibition, there isn’t anyone who can argue that point. But GOAT distance runner? That, I think, may be a step too far, though certainly he is in the top five.
A century ago the GOAT title was first held by Paavo Nurmi, the “Flying Finn” who dominated running in the early 20th century. Nurmi set 22 official world records at distances between 1500 meters and 20km, and won nine gold and three silver medals in Olympic competition. At his peak, Nurmi went undefeated in 121 straight races from 800 meters up, and was never beaten in cross country or the 10,000 meters.
In the 1950s the great Emil Zatopek, known as the “Czech Locomotive”, re-wrote the record books and introduced the concept of interval training. His Olympic Triple in Helsinki 1952 where he won the 5000, 10,000, and the marathon in his debut at the distance, all in Olympic record times, remains an unparalleled achievement. From there the GOAT crown moved south to East Africa where it resides to this day.
To be considered The GOAT, an athlete must prove his mettle on the track, roads, and cross country, and set world records to boot. The case against Eliud Kipchoge, who has shown world-class performances from 1500 meters to the marathon, centers on his true greatness coming in service to a single event, the marathon. Sunday’s 2:01:39 in Berlin was Kipchoge’s first and only world record.
From this vantage point, the GOAT title currently belongs to Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele. And before Kenenisa, his countryman Haile Gebrselassie was widely considered the bearer of that distinction. Kipchoge might not even be the best Kenyan runner ever, as Paul Tergat has a valid claim to make there, as well.
Haile famously chased Nurmi’s career records total wherever he could. In the end, he collected 24 in all, two more than the Finn, including the 5000 and 10,000 on the track and the marathon mark, too, at 2:03:59. But he never won the world cross country championship, finishing only as high as second place one time.
Paul Tergat was a GOAT contender, also for the breadth of his excellence. Not only was he a track-to-marathon world record holder like Haile, but he also won five straight World Cross Country titles when only the 12km distance was contested. But he lost to Haile in the Olympic 10,000 in 1996 & 2000 (by inches both times), so the lack of an Olympic gold medal remains the hole in his GOAT C-V.
When considering the case for the splendid Mr. Kipchoge, we ask the following: Has he been a World Champion? Yes, in the 5000 meters in Paris in 2003 as a reported 18 year-old in one of history’s greatest upsets. There he bettered both Kenenisa Bekele (3rd) and Morocco’s Hicham el Guerrouj (2nd) in a race for the ages. Does he hold an Olympic title? Yes, in the marathon in Rio 2016. Was he ever a World Cross Country Champion? No, he never finished higher than 4th (2004), and that was behind one of Bekele’s record 11 World Cross Country titles.
And Eliud only got as high as a silver medal in his youthful Olympic endeavors on the track, that in the 5000 in Beijing 2008. And who beat him? Again Bekele.
In fact, overall, track, roads, and cross country, Bekele holds a 15-9 advantage over Kipchoge head-to-head. However, on the roads, specifically the marathon, Eliud is 4-0 against Kenenisa – Chicago 2014 (1st to 4th); London 2016 (1st to 3rd); Berlin 2017 (1st to DNF); and London 2018 (1st to 6th).
Here’s the current count. Kenenisa holds 3 Olympic gold medals, Eliud 1. Kenenisa has 16 World titles, Eliud has 1. Kenenisa holds 2 world records (track 5 & 10k), Eliud holds 1 (marathon). And in head-to-head meetings in the most important competitions, the Olympics and World Championships, it is Bekele with a 4-1 advantage.
So who is the GOAT? In the marathon, no doubt it is Eliud Kipchoge, capped by his brilliant run in Berlin last Sunday. But the overall distance runner GOAT? You could still make a case for Nurmi, as no one has ever been more dominant, though the competition did not have the same international depth of today. And though the marathon remains the marquee event in the sport today, and there Kipchoge is 4-0 versus Bekele, the overall numbers and surface diversity in my mind still point north to Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele as greatest male distance runner of all time.
All we can hope is that their rivalry continues, because then it will be all of us who are the winners.