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Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge defended his London Marathon title and nearly broke the world record in the process as he finished in 2:03:04 on Sunday – just seven seconds shy of the previous mark. The women’s race saw an equally-impressive course record of 2:22:58 by fellow Kenyan Jemima Sumgong.
The men’s race started off with a blistering 14:16 split through five kilometers and remained under world record pace for another 30 kilometers. Kipchoge’s defining move came after 24 miles as he pulled away from compatriot Stanley Biwott headed into The Mall.
Kenenisa Bekele, the world record holder at 5,000 meters and 10,000 meters on the track, finished third in London at 2:06:26. He was one of the many victims of the quick start.
In the women’s race, Sumgong’s big move was a scary one as she took a tumble after tangling with Ethiopia’s Aselefech Mergia after 21 miles. Sumgong managed to get up quick, surged back to the front of the pack, and pushed the pace. Last year’s runner-up, Mary Keitany, also fell in the scuffle and faded to ninth place.
The final miles saw Sumgong battling against last year’s champion Tigist Tuga of Ethiopia, who finished second.
The London Marathon tends to yield some of the fastest marathons of the year but in 2016, Olympic team spots were also on the line.
First, let’s remember the mistakes from four years ago
Ethiopians like to pretend the 2012 Olympic marathon never happened. All three of their runners in the men’s race did not finish. The only bright spot was on the women's side thanks to Tiki Gelana’s Olympic record of 2:23:07 for gold, but none of the other female runners finished in the top 25. Mare Dibaba was one of them, but the federation may be able able to forgive her after dominance in recent years,
Kenya’s men came away with the silver and bronze medals but anything but gold does not seem right for a nation known for their 26.2 mile preeminence. The glaring mistake may have been to leave the world’s fastest marathoner of 2011 at home. Geoffrey Mutai won the 2011 Boston Marathon in 2:03:02 and the New York City Marathon in 2:05:06. A DNF in Boston that year may have cost him a chance to impress selectors and ultimately the chance to earn a gold medal for his country.
There are no guarantees in the way Athletics Kenya and Ethiopia’s athletics federation make their picks for the Olympic team. But here are a few takeaways from Sunday's race, and how they could affect the selection process for the women and men of Kenya and Ethiopia:
Kipchoge may be the safest pick of all after his win on Sunday. Leaving him off the team would be bigger than Mutai’s snub. Here is a look at his marathoning resume: 2013 Hamburg Marathon, 1st in 2:05:30; 2013 Berlin Marathon, second in 2:04:05; 2014 Rotterdam Marathon, 1st in 2:05:00; 2014 Chicago Marathon, 1st in 2:04:11; 2015 London Marathon, 1st in 2:04:42; 2015 Berlin Marathon, 1st in 2:04:00; 2015 London Marathon, 1st in 2:03:04. A gold medal in Rio and a future world record are the only things missing before he may contend for the title of greatest marathoner of all-time.
Stanley Biwott hung tough with the Kipchoge for the first 24 miles of the race and came away with a personal best of 2:03:51. Paired with his victory in New York City and now three top five finishes in the last three years in London, he should be a strong second choice.
Wilson Kipsang (former world record holder; 2:03:27 personal best) has Olympic experience from his bronze medal run in London. He took a tumble early in Sunday’s race but went on to push the already-hot pace mid-race. He finished fifth in 2:07:52 but his resume since 2013 may carry him to Rio.
Dennis Kimetto’s career is starting to pan out like that of Cy Young award winner Johan Santana in baseball. Each had a brilliant career but one shining moment signaled a turn of fortune. Santana had the no-hitter with the Mets before never being the same again. Kimetto has his 2:02:57 world record from Berlin. Since then, he finished third at the 2015 London Marathon before dropping out of two marathons and then finishing ninth on Sunday. No Olympics is likely the outcome for Kimetto.
Kipchoge, Biwott and Kipsang make sense, and it may be the strongest Kenyan marathon team ever assembled.
Sumgong can now make a better case for her Olympic berth with the victory. Last year, she took sixth in London and finished fourth at the world championships. She can handle rubbing shoulders with the top marathoners and remain controlled in an un-paced race.
As for Keitany, who knows if her tumble cost her the race on Sunday? She remains the second fastest female marathoner in history, has Olympic experience, and dominated the majors in the last two years. She fell on Sunday but may still land in Rio.
The last spot is up in the air with several other top performers across a series of different races.
A third place finish among the best marathoners is encouraging but Bekele’s 2:06:36 is still just the seventh fastest by an Ethiopian in 2016. However, star power may be one element that can throw Bekele into the mix for him to chase a fifth Olympic medal.
Bekele's time is faster than Boston Marathon champion Hayle Lemi’s 2:12:45 but Lemi also holds a 2:04:33 personal best from Dubai in January. After the race, Lemi sounded confident that he did enough to impress selectors.
Lelisa Desisa’s 2:13:32 runner-up finish in Boston and consistency over the last three years may be enough to earn him a spot for Rio as well.
Tufa’s runner-up finish improved her chances to land on the Olympic team and potentially be paired with Boston’s top two finishers in Trifi Tsegaye and Atsede Baysa as both also ran impressive marks in Dubai.
Mergia and Mare Dibaba were members of the 2012 Olympic team and took fifth and sixth in 2:23:57 and 2:24:09 respectively. They may have a chance on the team as well.
What comes next?
Enjoy watching people run in circles. Track season is in full swing and the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials will take place from July 1 to July 10 in Eugene, Ore. Opening ceremonies for the 2016 Olympics are on Aug. 5, while track and field action gets underway on Aug. 12 and runs through Aug. 21.
The women’s marathon takes place on Aug. 14. The men will race on the final day of competition.
The American team was selected at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in February and will feature Galen Rupp, Meb Keflezighi and Jared Ward for the men and Amy Cragg, Desi Linden and Shalane Flanagan for the women.
The next World Marathon Majors race will come after the 2016 Olympics with Berlin in September, Chicago in October, and New York City in November.