Can Haile Win the Olympic Marathon Crown?


In the ancient Games, a talented athlete might go to a temple and offer a gift to the gods in order to make himself more favorable to win the fabled sporting events of Ancient Greece. In my mind, sacrificing a goat has about as much chance of telling us who the winners will be in Beijing as any other modern method.

The following article is on Haile Gebreselassie and how Pat Butcher sees his chances to win in Beijing. The Olympic marathon is the most elusive of medals and the surprises that come in that event give proper closing to a Summer Olympics. The truth is, the marathon is sport, and it should be left to the gods of sport.

Please consider this: While Frank Shorter in 1972 was fairly well known, most experts at the time considered Derek Clayton, world record holder, Ron Hill, Boston and Commonwealth Games Winner, Akio Usami, Japan's top marathoner. Shorter took his chance, at nine miles and headed on to history.

In 1976, I remember Kenny Moore, the famous SI writer, and teammate of Shorter's in 1972, waxing about how well Frank would run in 1976. Shorter ran superbly in 1976, but there was this guy Waldemar Cierpinski, who ended up running a bit better. Questions abound about Cierpinski's nutritional aids, but for reasons known only to the IOC, they have not given Shorter the medal that many consider his.

Look at 2004. I remember watching Stefano Baldini and Meb Keflezighi in the first two positions near the end of the course. I realized that two Americans would medal in the marathon, after Deena Kastor's gutty last 10k in the women's marathon.

2008 will be the same. The educated guesses are just those, guesses. The men's marathon, in my mind is wide open. If Haile can stay in the game until the last five kilometers to eight kilometers, he could make the race quite interesting. But as London has showed the last three years, there are a plethora of male marathoners from around the world who want the gold in Beijing. I believe that the medal winners, men and women will posses some of the following characteristics:

1. They will race sparingly over the half marathon, and marathon distance in 2008.
2. They will race over cross country, and outdoor track, honing their speed.
3. They will have either be at the beginning or the end of their marathon careers.
4. Both races will feature two to three potential medal winners together after 41k-there will be no blowouts in Beijing.
5. The medal winners will be the ones who can handle the heat and smog with the least amount of discomfort and taxing to their systems.
6. The medalists will include a repeater on both sides, but the surprises will be there from the beginning!


After winning the Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon last Friday in 2.04.53, a time second only to his world record 2.04.26 from Berlin three months ago, there is really only one outstanding question regarding Haile Gebrselassie. Can the 34 year old Ethiopian win the Olympic marathon in Beijing in August, and raise an illustrious career to even further heights?

Gebrselassie has already won two Olympic golds, in two of the best 10,000 metres races ever witnessed. He has also won four successive world titles at the same distance, and half a dozen other world golds at different distances indoors and out. And he has amassed a formidable total of 24 world records. He says he would like to add a 25th (at the half-marathon) prior to Beijing, presumably to depress opponents even further than by these last two marathon performances. But the marathon crown remains the priority.

But the marathon is the least predictable of all Olympic events. Look at Paula Radcliffe of the UK. World record holder with 2.15.25, minutes faster than her closest rival on paper, and unbeaten at the distance before (and since) Athens 2004, Radcliffe got no further than 36k before she dropped out of the Olympic race.

Look at Geb’s erstwhile rival, Paul Tergat of Kenya. But for Geb, Tergat would be considered the greatest distance runner in modern athletics history. The Kenyan won five successive world cross titles, was the ‘victim’ of Haile in those two historic Olympic 10,000 metres finals, and was the marathon world record holder until September 30 last year. But Tergat also came unstuck in the Olympic marathon, finishing tenth in Athens.

And thereby hangs the doubt. Now Geb is not Tergat, as the Kenyan has been made acutely aware over the last decade or so. But let’s go back to the London Marathon 2007. Prior to the race, Tergat’s compatriot, Evans Rutto said that Haile was the athlete that he feared least in London, saying that the Ethiopian could run well out in front with pacemakers (the scenario, like in Dubai for most of Geb’s marathons), but that he was lost in a competitive race.

Rutto was made to look like a seer when Geb dropped off the back of the pack, and then out of the race in London, when the pace hotted up before the run home along the River Thames. But a lot has happened in the intervening nine months. First Geb discovered that the chest constrictions he suffered in London were the result of pollen allergies (the reason he will never run London in April again). Then he eradicated that bad memory with first Berlin, and now Dubai.

About the critics following the London aberration, he replied drily, “Maybe they made a mistake. I had no doubts I could win, I was just worried about the time in a tactical race. And I knew it wasn’t normal that I dropped from the group like that. A doctor told me years ago I had these allergies, but I forgot”.

The day before Dubai, which won him $250,000, he had said the money was not important, but afterwards he did permit himself a moment of regret that the overenthusiastic start – he admitted that he reached halfway at least a half minute too fast – meant he missed the million dollars for a new world record by 27 seconds. “It’s a bad thing to miss all that money,” he mused. But there was still a smile on his face.

And between now and Beijing? “A very good half-marathon,” he said without hesitation. He lost that record to the young Kenyan, Sammy Wanjiru, who ran 58.33 last year (and had an impressive marathon debut too, winning Fukuoka in December, in 2.06.39). “I have the potential to break the half-marathon record again,” said Geb, “but it needs perfect weather. To fail is not that difficult, but it’s less difficult in a half-marathon”.

Another record would certainly boost his already towering confidence and self-belief. Nevertheless that doubt about how he will fare in a highly competitive marathon in a very possibly polluted Beijing will endure until the race on the final day of the Olympic Games, on August 24.

As for the Dubai event, its future seems as assured as Haile’s legacy. “We did a good job here,” said Geb conspiratorially. “Tomorrow, London, Boston, Amsterdam, New York, Chicago, they must respond to this prize money. It’s good for the sport”.

On that front, race co-founder Ahmed Al Kamali underlined that Dubai Holding is extending the million dollar bonus for a world record. And race director, Peter Connerton also suggested that the million dollar prize pot itself might be increased. Dubai may be one of the youngest of the big city marathons, with barely a decade of tentative history behind it, but few others can afford to implement such big ideas. And with the second fastest men’s time in history, and Berhane Adere’s very respectable 2.22.40 as the women’s record, that all makes for a very substantial calling card. Interested parties should note the date of next year’s race, January 23, 2009.

But Haile’s next date with destiny comes a little earlier, in exactly seven months. It’s been a long time since a favourite won an Olympic marathon. Maybe, it’s hindsight that has convinced us that Carlos Lopes was odds-on for Los Angeles 1984. And at 37, the Portguese was older than Geb (if, as the dissenters say, that Ethiopian calendar can be believed?).

Given his Olympic target, the last word must go to the marathon itself. “I have competed from 400 metres (49sec in a relay for his club in Addis ten years ago) to the marathon. Compared to other distances, the marathon is a very hard sport. The 5000 and 10,000 (metres) is a joke. I am a witness”. Millions of us are waiting to be witnesses on August 24.

by Pat Butcher

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