Jon Gugala has written a very strong piece on the marathon. Tiki Gelana’s win was exciting, as the Olympic record was broken. But, the race gave us more questions about the exciting changes in the elite women’s marathon landscape than it answered. Here is how Jon saw it….
What We Didn’t Learn from the Olympic Women’s Marathon
by Jon Gugala
August 6, 2012
LONDON–I’ll be honest: This title came to me before I even thought about what it meant. (Something like, “Huh. I like the sound of that.”) But then I got to thinking about it, and after Ethiopia’s Tiki Gelana earned the gold and an Olympic record of 2:23:07, with Kenya’s Priscah Jeptoo in the silver and Russia’s Tatyana Arkhipova in the bronze, there are many points that remain ambiguous despite the definitive nature of a race.
Photo by PhotoRun.net
Question: Isn’t an Olympic medal sacred?
Answer: No, nothing is sacred. And there is no Santa Claus.
So let’s dig in!
The first question left unanswered by the women’s Olympic marathon is just how good exactly Gelana is. And why? Because we’ve never really seen her truly compete internationally in the marathon before, and despite all the parade-of-nations hoopla of the Olympics, we haven’t seen it yet.
Boom. I just said it.
Look back over Gelana’s stats and you’ll find that the 24-year-old Ethiopian has never run a World Marathon Majors. That doesn’t mean she’s never raced overseas; it just means she’s never raced at the highest level internationally.
The BBC announced early in the Olympic marathon broadcast that this was the deepest marathon in the world, and that is probably true: pound-for-pound and place-for-place, there isn’t any marathon that has a deeper field. But the Olympic marathon is certainly not the most competitive.
Keep in mind that so much of elite marathoning has to do with who’s got “it” on that specific day. Therefore as a country, the more dogs you’ve got in the fight, the better your odds of having a winner. With bloated prize pots and no limit on a nation’s number of competitors, you could argue that the 2012 Virgin London Marathon in April was more competitive (i.e. a greater depth at the very top, rather than by the median competitor) than the 2012 London Olympic marathon. That Gelana beats three Kenyans in the Olympics–yes, even very good ones–doesn’t answer what she’s got when hasn’t bested a slew of them.
At the 2012 Rotterdam Marathon where Gelana set her 2:18:58 PR, she was competing with an Italian that ran out of her mind to finish in 2:23, an aging Ethiopian with a 2:33 best, and a Dutch masters athlete. These were the top four, with a finishing spread of almost 10 minutes. Before this Gelena has set PRs in Amsterdam, Dublin, and Dublin again.
Contrast this with fourth-place Olympic marathon finisher Keitany, who at the 2012 Virgin London marathon had to beat her entire Olympic team, plus an alternate, not including the rest of the international field. Previously she’d raced in New York City and Boston.
There’s your difference in the competition.
Until Gelana steps up into the big leagues–the difference between a tennis Grand Slam and Olympic gold (big, big difference)–we just won’t know what she’s really got.
Another question left unanswered is where the hell the Russians keep coming from. Going into the race, one of the favorites was Russia’s Liliya Shobukhova, and for good reason: the 34-year-old has only been running the marathon for three years now, yet despite that, has posted the fastest time for any woman since 2005, the fourth-fastest time ever, and become the second-fastest woman ever. She would drop out of the Olympic marathon just past the half.
This didn’t matter; like a sky-high redwood falling, Shobukhova’s absence only gave opportunity for the sun to shine on the next Russian seedling. Past the half marathon, bronze medalist Arkhipova seemed to come from off camera, past the U.S.’s Shalane Flanagan, and then tractor-beam herself into contact with the lead game of three-on-three between the Kenyans and Ethiopians (and just like any pickup basketball game, that odd-numbered person really screws everything up).
So who is Arkhipova, exactly? The 29-year-old is a former world championships steeplechase silver-medalist, but that was back in 2007. She finished fourth in the 2008 Olympics in the event, but after a few isolated results on the track in 2009, it’s been all roads. They’ve been good but not great.
Though Arkhipova has a 2:25:01 best from 2011, hers was just the 44th fastest time of the year, and there were seven other Russian women on that top 100 list under 2:30. Really, Arkhipova could have been any of them. In Tokyo in February this year, she finished 2:26:46 for fifth, and unless she’s been running backyard tune-up races this spring, hasn’t competed since.
Is it peculiar that Arkhipova has a 1:12:31 half marathon best–and that only from her marathon PR performance–yet she closed the second half of her bronze medal race in 1:10:15? Yeah, it’s possible. And yes, it’s fishy. But why not? As long as there are Russians running, we’ll continue to be surprised by them mysteriously popping up in the top 10, as they did in 2004 and 2008 Olympic marathons. This just happened to be the magic year that they popped into the top three.
Also, on a completely unrelated note, did you know that the U.S.’s Desiree Davila, after having been 11th at the 2009 IAAF World Championships marathon for the last two years, is now 10th after ninth-place finisher Nailya Yulamanova of Russia received a retroactive doping ban in July thanks to the biological passport system? This has nothing to do with the previous Question Number Two!
Finally, the biggest question left unanswered is if Davila can live up to her hype.
I know, I know; you’ve got to be thinking that this is a joke. But off all the women that bowed out with injury, including world record-holder Paula Radcliffe, the biggest question mark was on what Davila could have done.
In July it was reported that 29-year-old Davila was suffering from a hip injury that was hampering training; last weekend an erroneous report from her coach said she’d dropped out (she hadn’t). But though she would start Sunday’s marathon, she wouldn’t make it past 5K.
Davila hasn’t raced in a marathon with international competition since her improbable second place finish at the 2011 Boston Marathon when she became the third-fastest American ever at the distance (2:22:38). Since then, she’s only raced once–the 2012 Olympic team trials–and you just can’t evaluate a performance off the dress rehearsal. The curtain must come up, and it hasn’t yet.
With Davila’s DNF at the Olympic marathon (main stage if there ever was one), the question remains where she stacks up nationally and worldwide. (Remember that before Keitany erased Catherine Nderiba’s marathon national record this year, Keitany was just the third-place debutante in the 2011 Boston Marathon). Long overshadowed by U.S. teammates Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher (who would finish 10th and 11th in 2:25:51 and 2:26:07, respectively), Davila has yet to go head-to-head with them either in a winner-takes-all contest.
Davila, with Flanagan and Goucher, has committed to the 2013 Boston Marathon, where we’ll be able to get the answer. But until then the question remains unanswered.
That there are so many unanswered questions around the sport of women’s marathoning is a good thing–you don’t see NBA speculations answered by the USA men’s basketball blowout of Nigeria. It’s because the marathon has evolved past the Olympic end-all be-all–unlike track and field–that these questions remain. So as you’re up late at night pondering these and other questions from Sunday’s race, you can at least comfort yourself in that inescapable truth.
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