My earliest memory of the men’s marathon at the Olympics dates back to 1972 when an intruder joined the race with about a mile to go and sprinted clear of the American leader at the time, Frank Shorter, who was awarded the gold medal. The race is now dominated by distance runners from East Africa of which Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya has run the fastest time this year.
The nine best times this year have been run by athletes from Kenya and Ethiopia where training at altitude gives their runners an advantage when they compete at sea level. The fastest runner this year from outside those two countries is 10th ranked Kaan Kigen Ozbilen from Turkey. The highest ranked western European is Tadesse Abraham who represents Switzerland but was born in Eritrea.
Male athletes have competed in a marathon at every Olympics Games in the modern era dating back to 1896. In the early days the distance was not fixed and was generally between 25 and 26 miles. At the London Games in 1908 the race was run over 26 miles, 385 yards so that the finish coincided with the railway platform from where Queen Victoria was located. It was thought to be wise not to ask her to move so the extra yards had to be run and now that is the standard distance.
Spyridon Louis of Greece won the 1896 race with a time just below three hours. The Olympic record is now the 2:06:32 that it took Samuel Wanriju to cover the distance in Bejiing eight years ago. The winning time in London was almost one minute and a half slower but the course was designed to pass famous landmarks rather than set up a new record. The race in Rio begins at 09:30 local time but the temperatures in the morning may make creating a new best time difficult.
The betting is dominated by the African runners who have set the best times over the last four years. Galen Rupp is quoted at 16/1and he is the shortest priced Caucasian athlete. Rupp ran in the 10,000 metre final last Saturday and was involved in the incident in which Mo Farah fell. The British athlete has tried the marathon distance and in four years in Tokyo that could be his event as he has nothing left to achieve on the track. Farah was born in Somali so has the physiology to run in marathons.
Kipchoge best time this season is 46 seconds better than the second best marathon performance in 2016. Even over more than 26 miles that is a significant edge and the Kenyan looks a worthy favourite. Kipchoge has won the last two London Marathons which is now established as one of the most prestigious in the world and always attracts a high-quality field. He won Olympic bronze in the 2004 5,000 metres but clearly the runner has an aptitude for the longer distance of the marathon.
Stephen Kiprotich represents each way value and he can be backed at 5/1 for a top three finish. He is the defending Olympic champion having won in London. Another gold medal in the event would make him the third athlete to win the marathon at two Olympics. In 2008 and 2012 the six medal winners were representing African nations and Rupp is the only contender who could break that dominance. He had a hard race on the track just over a week ago so recovery could be a problem.
Ethiopians have won most Olympic men’s marathons with four gold medals since 1896. The next two most successful countries are France and United States with three wins each before the emergence of the other East Africans who combine natural ability with more proper training regimes. There are now many big city marathons in the calendar and financial rewards for winning these races has focused the minds of runners who are now professional. The East Africans have the hunger and physicality and now train in a professional manner and look unbeatable.
The betting suggests anyone of the 10 fastest runners of the year can win a medal. The best guide to the marathon is latest form and that makes Kipchoge a runner to back rather than oppose. In fact he could be joined by two compatriots on the podium and three flags of Kenya may be displayed at the medal ceremony.