Road to Paris: Can Kenya’s marathon stars rewrite history at the Paris Olympics?

BMW Berlin Marathon, Berlin, Deutschland, 24.09.2023.

Just weeks before the 2024 Olympics kick off in Paris, Sports Network Africa’s Stephen Granger highlights why Team Kenya is one to watch this year, beginning July 26.

by Stephen Granger for bird story agency

Kenya’s Olympic squad for Paris, announced in May, boasts a star-studded lineup led by Olympic champions Eliud Kipchoge and Peres Jepchirchir. This team of marathon elites has the potential to carve out new chapters in Kenya’s illustrious Olympic history.

The Kenyan national anthem has been played at the Olympic Marathon ceremony three times out of the last four summer Olympiads. In Nairobi there is a quiet confidence that the well-known music will again be heard at the business end of the Paris Olympics in August.

Only in Kenya can you race to a sub 2 hr 3 min marathon within the qualifying window for the Paris Olympics (the 7th fastest on the planet for all time), and still find yourself on the bench. That was the fate of Timothy Kiplagat, named as a reserve for the national team. And the fact that few are questioning this team selection, underlines the marathon strength of Kenya.

With the likes of Eliud Kipchoge, Benson Kipruto and Alexander Mutisi Munyao slated to toe the starting line in Paris wearing the black, red and green of the country of their birth, it would take a brave person to bet against Kenyan domination of the podium.

Not that a clean-sweep of medals is guaranteed or even likely. With the likes of Ethiopian Sisay Lemma, the fastest qualifier with a 2:01:48 in Valencia just over six months ago, 2:03:00 Tanzanian Gabriel Geay and the inevitable surprise package in the mix, the 2024 Olympic Marathon will be one of the most hard-fought in the history of the event. The historic unpredictability of the Olympic Marathon and the potential extreme heat in August make podium predictions even more difficult.

But the selected Kenyan trio are currently three of the world’s best marathoners. Between them they won three of the last six Marathon Majors and took two runner-up positions, a remarkable haul for a single country. And that is without taking into account the late Kelvin Kiptum’s world record breaking win in the Chicago Marathon in October, just four months before tragically losing his life in a car accident.

Kipchoge is the best-known name in world marathon racing and will be aiming for an unprecedented third Olympic Marathon gold medal. The fast-striding Kenyan is the third athlete ever to have won two Olympic Marathon golds – in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and Sapporo, Japan, in 2021.

Ethiopian Abebe Bikila, the first athlete from Africa to win the Olympic Marathon in 1960 in Rome, defended his title four years later in Tokyo, while East Germany’s Waldemar Cierpinski achieved marathon success in Montreal in 1976 and Moscow in 1980.

Can Kipchoge make marathon magic and create history in Paris? Just three months short of his fortieth birthday some might be doubtful of his chances. Kipchoge suffered a rare off-day at last year’s Boston Marathon, dropping out of podium contention to finish 6th and many were looking for retirement messages on his social media when he finished 10th in this year’s Tokyo Marathon.

Undoubtedly Kipchoge was affected by the death of Kiptum just weeks prior to Tokyo and has gone on record to state as much. But the marathon great has put that behind him and has been focused exclusively on his preparation for Paris.

And when Kipchoge’s preparation is on-point, few, if any, can keep pace with him – as he showed when he raced to an emphatic victory in Berlin in September last year. Kipchoge’s 2:02:42 was 1:33 outside his lifetime best and only surpassed by Lemma and Kipruto in the Olympic qualifying window but was enough to give notice that his best could still lie ahead and that a treble Olympic Marathon gold could be waiting for him in Paris.

What sets Kipchoge apart is his ability to excel in all conditions. Typically, Olympic Marathons are not won by the fastest athletes of the era. Often run in warm to hot conditions over courses not built for speed, Olympic Marathon glory is not won lightly and only by those athletes who are able to overcome those challenges.

Kipchoge has won in ‘perfect’ marathon conditions in Berlin – cool temperatures, no wind and a flat course – but he also triumphed in testing conditions in Rio and Sapporo. His half marathon time of 59:25 is one of the fastest in the field and such is his versatility, he will be a formidable contender.

“The Olympic Games is what we all dream about as little kids,” Kipchoge has been quoted as saying. “It is what motivates us the most today. I am beyond proud to be selected for the Kenyan team for the 5th time in my life. After winning gold in Rio and Tokyo, my focus will now be on Paris!”

A strength of Kenyan distance running at championship races, is their ability to run as a team. With their depth in world-class performers, Kenya have three athletes who can run together, offering mutual support. And while only three athletes per country can race the Olympic Marathon, Kipchoge knows that his teammates Kipruto and Munyao are likely to stay the pace through 30km and well beyond.

Kipruto and Munyao’s support could prove valuable for Kipchoge’s title aspirations, but they also present his most formidable challenge. Both have proven themselves world-class marathoners of the highest order.

Kipruto won at Tokyo in March in his personal best time of 2:02:16 and he placed second to a world record-breaking Kiptum at the Chicago Marathon last October after winning the race twelve months earlier. At 33 years of age, he is at his marathon peak and is second in the latest World Athletics rankings, just four points behind Kiptum.

Munyao is the speed-kid on the block. At just 27 years, with a 57:59 half marathon (Valentia 2020) and a 27:23,03 10 000m, no one can match him for speed. How he will cope with the rigours of the Olympic Marathon is uncertain, but following his impressive victory at London in April, when he outran the Ethiopian great, Kenenisa Bekele, the selectors clearly felt confident in his ability to shine in Paris.

If the Kenyan men’s trio are being tipped for medals, their marathon women look equally formidable. With an embarrassing array of riches to choose from, the selectors have gone with two assured champions at the top of their game and gambled on one former world record holder who has recently slipped in the rankings.

It is hard to accept that Peres Jepchirchir is as low as number four on the current world marathon rankings, behind Ethiopian Tigist Assefa, Dutch athlete Sifan Hassan and Ethiopian World Champion, Amane Shankule. The thirty-year-old has won six of her last seven marathon starts, including three Marathon Majors in Boston, Tokyo and London and the 2021 Olympic Marathon in Japan.

She set a world record for women-only marathons at the London Marathon in April with an emphatic 2:16:16 victory, seven seconds clear of Assefa, and also holds two world championship titles for the half marathon. When the stakes are high, Jepchirchir is at her best and it will take some doing to prevent her defending her title in Paris.

Helen Obiri’s past record of championship titles on the track and in cross-country coupled with her current form – wins at 2023 New York and 2024 Boston Marathon – virtually guaranteed her selection. Two world titles in 2019 (on the track over 5000m in Doha and at the World Cross Country Championships in Denmark) and two Olympic silver medals (in the 5000m at Rio and London) feature high in her running CV and her 1:04:22 half marathon PB makes her the fastest in the field.

Brigid Kosgei’s selection is something of a surprise. Currently down at 32nd place in the world rankings, Kosgei has been chosen ahead of a number of other athletes above her. These include Rosemary Wanjiru (5th), Ruth Chepngetish (6th), Joyciline Jepkosgei (9th) and Sheila Wanjiku (10th), all who have featured prominently in recent Marathon Majors.

Those athletes’ consolation at missing an Olympic call-up will be the prospect of big pay-days at the remaining 2024 Marathon Majors, in the likely absence of the Olympic athletes.

Kosgei also earned the nod ahead of the named reserve, 2022 New York Marathon winner, Sharon Lokedi. Although Lokedi places down in 42nd position in the current rankings, she placed third in New York last November, just 10 seconds down on the winner, Obiri, and ahead of Kosgei in fourth.

While Kosgei, who placed 5th in her last marathon at London in April, has not been able to re-create her pre-COVID best marathon form in the last 24 months, there is no questioning her ability, which took her to the silver medal in Sapporo in 2021, just 16 seconds down on Jepchirchir and the selectors are gambling on her ‘bmt’ in Paris.

With a 10 000m best of 30:18 and a half marathon time of 1:04:49, few can match Kosgei for speed, the foundation of her world record of 2:14:04 set in Chicago in 2019, six months after winning the London Marathon. And only the Olympics 2024 will answer if she can translate that into a top performance in Paris.

bird story agency