This is the final piece for David Hunter on the ten days and nights of the Olympic track and field schedule. David chose to write on the greatest marathoner of all times and his coronation.
OG/Day Ten: Kipchoge’s Coronation
August 8th, 2021
Heading into the Tokyo Olympics there had been a sizeable legion of observers who considered Eliud Kipchoge to be the greatest marathoner ever. However, a significant number of other observers, while acknowledging the Kenyan’s accomplishments, were not quite ready to award him that title. After Kipchoge’s total domination and sterling overall performance in the men’s Olympic marathon, there simply cannot be any remaining disbelievers. Eliud Kipchoge has confirmed that, without question, he is the greatest marathoner of all time.
The pre-race focus had been almost exclusively on Kipchoge – the extraordinary athlete who came to these Games as the defending marathon champion. The Kenyan had already assembled an unmatched resumÃ©: winner of 9 major marathons; world record holder at 2:01:39; and the first and only man to run a marathon in under 2 hours – not a race, but a carefully orchestrated experiment to show the world – and the coming generations – that this Bannister-like barrier could be broken.
But one nagging accomplishment remained to be conquered: the successful defense of his ’16 Olympic marathon victory – a feat that only two other Olympians [Abebe Bikila: Rome ’60 and Tokyo ’64; and Waldermar Cierpinski: Montreal ’76 and Moscow ’80] had achieved in the 125 year history of the Games. Could Kipchoge check that box, eliminating any remaining doubt that he is the greatest marathoner of all time?
As is consistent with Olympic tradition, the men’s marathon was held on the final day of the Olympic competition in the Japanese city of Sapporo, approximately 600 miles north of Tokyo. While this city was selected in large measure to provide more accommodating weather conditions, race day, unfortunately, offered a humid day with temperatures that would soar into the ’80s. 105 athletes jettisoned their ice vests and toed the line for the 7:00 a.m. start. The race featured the world’s greatest marathoners with 8 competitors having run under 2:06 and another 9 having bettered 2:07. With the crack of the starter’s pistol, the mob got underway as Columbian athlete Suarez quickly dashed to take the lead followed by the Kenyan trio of Kipchoge and his countrymen, Amos Kipruto, and Lawrence Cherono, and about 50 other athletes all squeezed into the lead pack. American Galen Rupp, the 2016 bronze medalist, attached himself to Kipchoge. Rupp looked effortlessly composed and stayed cool by periodically trading his hat for a wet and chilled fresh cap at aid stations along the route. The lead pack was knocking out 5K splits in the 15-minute range, a pace that was not too punishing yet proved effective in trimming the lead pack to about 33 as the field passed the halfway point in 1:05:13.
Shortly after halfway, Rupp briefly moved into the lead as the leaders raced toward the 25-kilometer mark and a 5K split of 15:36. Shortly after 25 kilos, the defending champion injected some pace, a move that Kipruto, Cherono, Rupp, and the stronger runners covered. Kipchoge’s spurt was not a decisive one, just a modest surge to test the waters, to see who was able to respond. It worked. Within minutes, the lead pack had disposed of the strugglers as the lead pack was trimmed to 13.
As the thermometer went higher, the remaining leaders rode a 5K split of 15:07 (fastest of the day at that point) to get to 30 kilos. Shortly thereafter, Kipchoge got to work. Immediately separating himself from all who remained, Kipchoge sailed away. His move was stunning. Still not exhibiting effort, the Kenyan raced on to 35 kilos with a split of 14:28 that no one could match. Rupp fell back, his chance for another medal dashed. Kipruto walked off the course just before 37 kilos. But the defending champion was not yet done. Looking strong and occasionally exhibiting a smile, Kipchoge powered onward, his victory essentially assured. A 5K split of 14:58 carried the leader to 40 kilos and an insurmountable lead that would allow him to savor the final miles to the finish. Looking fresh as a daisy, Kipchoge waved to the crowd as he crossed the finish line at 2:08:38 – a time that would be 80 seconds ahead of the silver medalist.
Meanwhile, the foursome of Cherono, Belgium’s Bashir Abdi, Spain’s Ayad Lemdassmem, and the Netherland’s Abdi Nageeye were left to battle for the final two medals. All four looked drained and incapable of mounting any sort of decisive surge over the final miles. This would be a war of guts for the silver and the bronze. When no one was able to secure separation, it all came down to the final, painful 100 meters. The Spaniard was the first to let go. Nageeye [silver in 2:08:58] somehow struggled to gain a modest lead and began repeatedly looking back, waving and urging Abdi, his Belgium friend, to join him for the final medal. Nageeye’s waves inspired Abdi [bronze in 2:10:00] who found the strength to cross the line in 3rd just ahead of Cherono [4th in 2:10:02] who was falling back. All were greeted by the smiling and flag-draped champion.
Japan’s Suguru Osako, exhorted onward over the final miles by his countrymen, finished 6th in 2:10:41. Rupp crossed 8th in 2:11:41. USA’s Jake Riley clocked 2:16:26 to finish 29th. And American athlete Abdi Abdirahman – competing in his 5th Games and at age 45 the oldest athlete in the field – ran a stunning 2:18:27 to finish 41st.
How brutal were the weather conditions on this essentially flat course? Reigning world marathon champion and 2-time Boston Marathon champion Lelisa Desisa DNF’d and highly accomplished Canadian athlete Cam Levins finished 72nd with a time of 2:28:43.
After the race, the greatest marathoner of all-time addressed the media. “It means a lot for me, especially at this time.” Said the gold medalist on what this victory meant to him. “It was really hard last year, it (Olympic Games Tokyo 2020) was postponed. I am happy for the local organizing committee that made this race happen. It is a sign that shows the world we are heading in the right direction – we are on the right transition to a normal life. I can say congratulations to them that they made this Olympics happen.” Kipchoge went on the explain his decisive, race-changing move at 30 kilometers. “I wanted to create a space (a gap) to show the world that this is a beautiful race. I wanted to test my fitness, I wanted to test how I’m feeling. I wanted to show that we have hope in the future.” Questioned about his joyful countenance during the later stages of the race when most are showing strain, the victor said, “That smile is the happiness. They say to enjoy this world is to be happy. While you are happy it helps you relax and enjoy the race.” Before concluding his remarks, Eliud Kipchoge took time to answer what his win today meant toward his legacy. “I think I have fulfilled the legacy by winning the marathon for the second time, back-to-back. I hope now to help inspire the next generation.” Those who have followed the career of Eliud Kipchoge and have witnessed his crowning success in Sapporo have already received that inspiration. / Dave Hunter /