Marathon weekend is the running world's answer to Super Tuesday in an election year: a multisite trial for the 2000 Olympics in which some candidates will fall behind, others will drop out and survivors will display stamina for the long run. Most elite runners in the London and Rotterdam marathons next Sunday and the Boston Marathon on Monday will compete not only to win a premier race but also to earn spots in Sydney's big show, though none of the races is an official Olympic trial. In no other Olympic event are so many berths earned on foreign soil.
Boston has become a familiar Kenyan outpost. "It is the toughest course [of the three]," says veteran John Kagwe, whose Kenyan teammates have won the men's division for nine straight years. London is the only race with a separate start for women, so the lead woman can neither follow male rabbits nor push the early pace to hide in a pack of men, as is possible in Rotterdam and Boston. The Rotterdam course is the flattest, and therefore fastest, but organizers have come under fire for positioning pace cars just ahead of the leaders so the cars act as windbreakers.
Nine Kenyan men will run in Boston, and the Kenyan federation will guarantee Olympic berths to the country's top two male finishers. Race favorites include Kagwe, a two-time New York Marathon champ, and four of his countrymen: defending champ Joseph Chebet, two-time winner Moses Tanui, and Ondoro Osoro and Elijah Lagat. In London the top two Kenyan women will earn Olympic berths—almost certainly Tegla Loroupe, whose 2:20:43 last year in Berlin is still the world best, and Joyce Chepchumba, who has run the fastest time ever in a women's-only race (2:23:22).
Morocco-born Khalid Khannouchi set a world-best 2:05:42 in Chicago last year. With his U.S. citizenship still pending, Khannouchi will reluctantly run in London rather than at the U.S. trials in Pittsburgh on May 7. Khannouchi will be one of 12 men there who have run under 2:08.
As the defending Olympic champion, South Africa's Josia Thugwane can earn a trip to Sydney by merely running under the Olympic-qualifying standard of 2:14 in London. If Gert Thys and other South Africans run under 2:11, their Olympic places will be decided by time. If three men don't break 2:11, the South African federation will hold a postrace selection meeting. Got that?
Ethiopia's Tesfaye Tola will be the only sub-2:07 marathoner in Rotterdam, the Olympic selection site for German, French and Dutch runners. Australia's Nicole Carroll, who will run in Sydney, is favored in a so-so women's field in Rotterdam.
Don't look too hard for U.S. runners in these races. Marla Narloch, a 2:37 runner, will be the top-seeded U.S. woman in Boston. The 150 fastest men's times in the world last year were under 2:12, so Chris Ashford, the top-seeded U.S. man in Boston, could surpass his personal best of 2:24.02 and still finish well back in the pack.