RIO DE JANEIRO — The water spraying out of the misting machines along the 26.2-mile course that wound through Rio quickly evaporated before hitting any of the 159 women in Sunday’s Olympic marathon. While the temperature read 70 degrees at the start and finish line of the Sambadrome Marquês de Sapucaí, at least 23 women dropped out to the warm conditions.
However Kenya’s Jemima Sumgong persevered, crossing the finish line first in 2:24.04 to end the Kenyan women’s Olympic gold medal drought in the marathon. Eunice Jepkirui Kirwa of Bahrain delivered her country’s first silver medal in Olympic history as she took second in 2:24:13. Ethiopia’s Mare Dibaba ran 2:24:30 for bronze.
If the day was scored like a cross country meet—scores are determined by adding up the places of team members, and the team with the lowest score wins—the United States would walk away with a gold medal as Shalane Flanagan, Desiree Linden and Amy Cragg finished in sixth, seventh and ninth place. Only Japan in 2004 has put three women in the top 10 of the Olympic marathon.
The American women ran close together for an early chunk of the race before Flanagan and Cragg followed the lead pack of East African women. Much like at February’s U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Los Angeles, Flanagan and Cragg shared water bottles and tucked wet towels as well as sponges into their racing singlet. Linden’s top was riddled with holes in an attempt to get any sort of breeze from the scantily shaded course.
“I told Desi as soon as we finished,‘I’m so proud of us. We came here to run hard and I felt like we did.’” Flanagan says.
“I can honestly say that even at the end, I was competing as much as I could,” Cragg says. “I never gave up. That last homestretch hurt so bad.”
Flanagan, a native of Marblehead, Mass., clipped at the heels of the leaders until the final pace surge with less than four miles remaining in the race. Flanagan faded to sixth, where she stayed until she crossed the finish line. From the start of the race, Linden ran a conservative pace and picked off some of the runners that wilted in the heat, crossing the line after Flanagan. Cragg held on to the lead pack through 27K before holding on to join the likes of Joan Benoit (gold in 1984), Deena Kastor (bronze in 2004) and her 2016 teammates for the best finishes by American women in the Olympic marathon.
However, facing the sad reality of elite distance running in 2016, it’s difficult to not think about the runners ahead of the Americans and wonder whether a sixth place finish is enough for a medal someday down the road. Flanagan and 2012 marathoner Kara Goucher could still see themselves move up a few places in the London Olympic marathon—they finished 10th and 11th respectively—since runners ahead of them are still being removed from the official results because of doping. It is no secret that East African drug testing is lacking.
Volha Mazuronak of Belarus, who finished fifth in 2:24:48, is coached by ex-marathoner Liliya Shobukhova, who was banned from the sport for abnormalities in her biological passport and reportedly paid to cover-up positive drug tests. Even though Mazuronak has never tested positive for any performance-enhancing drugs, not great company with whom to be associated.
Even ties to doping suspects are not too far from Sumgong’s inner circle (who proclaimed at least eight times in her victory press conference that “we are clean”). She used to train with Kenya’s Rita Jeptoo, who was busted for EPO and stripped of her Chicago and Boston Marathon titles, and is represented by Federico Rosa, who was arrested and charged in Kenya with doping offenses last month. He was released in time to travel to Rio in order to assist his athletes, though he did not associate himself with any athletes.
A reporter from LetsRun.com and myself spoke to Rosa after the race. Here’s a transcript of the exchange:
LR: “Jemima just won the Olympics and you think she’s clean, right?”
Rosa: “Can we talk about Jemima and the gold medal?”
LR: “What do you say to people who say she can’t be clean because of what’s going on in Kenya?”
Rosa: “She did another doping test.”
SI: “What have you done differently to monitor your athletes since Rita?”
Rosa: “We monitor—we can not be sure of the athlete but it is only to celebrate the gold medal in the Olympics. Nothing else.”
For now, the United States can revel in one of the best team performances in Olympic marathoning history. It can only get better.
“Positions can always change,” Flanagan says. “You never know. The women in front of me ran super tough. I don’t know what they closed in but 2:24 in these conditions is outrageously fast. I think the Olympic record is 2:23 from London and those were better conditions.”
“We talked about it a little bit ahead of time,” Cragg says. “You can’t do about it except go and run the best you possibly can. There are times when ridiculous things happen and you question it. You have to be a little bit aware of it. If someone goes and puts in this insane move ... you have to be aware of it. I do think they’re doing a good job of really trying to clean it up. Athletes want it cleaned up so badly and we have a long ways to go—I do believe that.”