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Olympic Sports
Tim Layden
April 26, 1999
April PowersTop marathoners were out in force in London, Rotterdam and Boston
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April 26, 1999

Olympic Sports

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April Powers
Top marathoners were out in force in London, Rotterdam and Boston

April once belonged to the Boston Marathon, a New England rite of spring with a long and colorful list of characters and traditions. Boston is home to Johnny Kelley and Heartbreak Hill, Bill Rodgers and Joan Benoit Samuelson. It remains the most treasured marathon in the world.

However, it no longer has exclusive rights to its own month. The third weekend in April has become an annual feast of marathoning, in which Boston is the last (by virtue of its Monday Patriots Day start), but no longer the main, course. The Rotterdam and London marathons are run the day before Boston, and each has established itself as a premier event in the ever-faster world of elite marathoning. Rotterdam's tabletop-flat course annually imperils world bests, while London's roughly $3.3 million budget enables it to assemble the most glamorous field of any major marathon in the world.

There is plenty of talent to feed not only the two European marathons but also Boston. As African runners have crushed world track records at distances from 1,500 to 10,000 meters, so have they raised the marathon standard, towing the rest of the world behind them. In 1998 at Rotterdam, Tegla Loroupe of Kenya ran a women's world best of 2:20:47, cutting 19 seconds from Ingrid Kristiansen's 1983 mark. Five months later unknown Ronaldo da Costa of Brazil ran a men's world best of 2:06:05 in the Berlin marathon, bettering me 2:06:50 run by Belayneh Dinsamo of Ethiopia a decade earlier. Ten men (four of them Kenyans) ran 2:07:57 or faster last year, with six of those performances coming in spring's big three.

Thus it was no surprise that last weekend produced another batch of fast times, terrific racing and even a record-keeping controversy. In Rotterdam, Loroupe was close to record pace at the halfway point, but slowed while running virtually alone to win in 2:22:50. In London, Joyce Chepchumba, also of Kenya, won the women's division in 2:23:22. Though her time was 32 seconds slower than Loroupe's in Rotterdam—and 2:35 off Loroupe's world best—Chepchumba was awarded a $125,000 bonus from London organizers for setting a world record.

Confused? Welcome to the arcane world of women's road racing. It has been argued that Loroupe was paced by male runners in her 1998 Rotterdam run, and that most fast women's times are aided by having men in the race. For that reason London organizers—who start their women's race 25 minutes before the men's—declared that the true women's world record was the fastest time ever run in an all-woman marathon: a 2:23:24 turned in by Lidia Simon of Romania at the Osaka women's marathon in January. Chepchumba ran two seconds faster.

The London men's winner squandered his chance to cash in on a record. After holding off two-time winner Antonio Pinto of Portugal, Abdelkader El Mouaziz of Morocco waltzed across the finish line in 2:07:57, waving to spectators and easily losing the two seconds by which he missed Pinto's course record and a $25,000 bonus. In Rotterdam, Japhet Kosgei of Kenya became the seventh-fastest marathoner in history with a victory in 2:07:11. In a race designed for fast times, five men broke 2:08.

A day later Kosgei's countryman Joseph Chebet won in Boston—the race's ninth straight Kenyan champion—in 2:09:52. Fatuma Roba of Ethiopia took her third women's title in 2:23:25.

Intriguing times lie ahead for the marathon. Loroupe's performances have made it plain that women will soon be breaking 2:20. Among the men, Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia, who holds the world records in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters and is arguably the greatest talent in distance running history, has said he will turn to the marathon after the 2000 Olympics. With that promise, he casts a giant shadow over the event, no small feat for a man barely more than five feet tall.

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