Kenyans out to claim first Olympic marathon medal in Rio

Ethiopia's Mare Dibaba is the favorite to win the Olympic marathon, but top Kenyan and American runners look to challenge her for a spot on the podium.
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RIO DE JANEIRO — On Sunday morning, 160 women will toe the starting line in the famous Sambódromo for the largest Olympic marathon in history.

Leading the way will be the East African nations of Ethiopia and Kenya that have dominated all of the World Marathon Majors in the four years since London. Of the 23 major marathons run since London 2012 (not counting the two world championships in 2013 and ’15) Kenyan women have come out victorious on 14 occasions; Ethiopia has the other nine wins. But despite their success, Kenyan marathon runners have never won Olympic gold. 

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London Marathon champion Jemima Sumgong, world championship silver medalist Helah Kiprop and Paris Marathon champion Visiline Jepkesho​ have been entrusted with ending the streak of three straight Olympics with a silver medal and putting the distance-running powerhouse on top of the podium.

Ethiopia took gold in the women’s race with Tiki Gelana setting an Olympic record of 2:23:07 but she will not be back to defend her title. The team will instead send world champion Mare Dibaba, Dubai Marathon champion Tirfi Tsegaye and 2015 London Marathon champion Tigist Tufa to win again.

The United States fields a team with Olympic experience that includes Shalane Flanagan, Amy Hastings and Desiree Linden. An American woman has not won any of the major marathons since London but they consistently finish within the top five to 10 of races so they can not be discounted in Rio.

Here’s a look at the field for Sunday morning’s race, which will start at 8:30 a.m. ET:

The favorite

Mare Dibaba (Ethiopia)—Personal best of 2:19:52 from the 2015 Xiamen Marathon

Dibaba has been running the marathon since 2010 and has Olympic experience, but it is not the best as she finished 22nd in London. In recent years, she has improved greatly, taking third at the 2013 Boston Marathon before winning Chicago that fall (after Kenya’s Rita Jeptoo was stripped of her title due to a positive test for EPO). Dibaba holds the fastest personal best of the entire field with her victory from the 2015 Xiamen Marathon in China. She won last summer’s world championship marathon and was awarded the “best marathoner” title for 2015 by the IAAF. Her only recent blemish was a sixth place finish in April’s Boston Marathon.

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Jemima Sumgong (Kenya)—Personal best of 2:20:41 from the 2014 Boston Marathon

Sumgong fell and hit the pavement about 20 miles into the London Marathon yet she still came away with the victory in 2:22:58. Since the 2012 Olympics, she has finished within the top five in four of the five major marathons that she has run. She just missed the medals at last summer’s world championships with a fourth place finish in Beijing.

Helah Kiprop (Kenya)—Personal best of 2:21:27 from the 2016 Tokyo Marathon

Kiprop, which is a popular last name in Kenyan distance running, won the Tokyo Marathon in February with a her personal best of 2:21:27. She has already found success wearing the Kenyan national team kit as she took silver behind Dibaba at last summer’s world championships.

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Tigist Tufa (Ethiopia)—Personal best of 2:21:52 from the 2014 Shanghai Marathon

Tufa has raced sparingly in 2016 and that means just her runner-up finish at April’s London Marathon in 2:23:03 – just one year after winning the race. On the global championships stage, she has a sixth place finish on her resume from last year’s world championships before she went on to take third at the New York City Marathon in November.

American hopefuls

Shalane Flanagan (Marblehead, Mass.)—Personal best of 2:21:14 from 2014 Berlin Marathon

This is potentially Flanagan’s last Olympics and she believes it is her best chance to earn a medal. The U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Los Angeles left her in a wheelchair after the race due to the hot race-day conditions but that experience has been put behind her and her training in Flagstaff should have her ready to contend for the podium. She owns a bronze medal in the 10,000 meters from the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and contested the marathon in London, where she took 10th. What bodes well for Flanagan is that she set a half marathon personal best of 67:51 in June and could be very fit for the marathon. No American woman has medaled in the marathon since Deena Kastor’s 2004 bronze in Athens. Kastor remains the American record holder but Flanagan is No. 2 all-time.

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Flanagan has finished behind doping cheats many times and if this marathon is cleaner than past ones, she could be the top American hope for a medal.

Amy Hastings Cragg (Leavenworth, Kan.)—Personal best of 2:27:03 from 2011 Los Angeles Marathon and ’14 Chicago Marathon

In 2012, Hastings finished fourth at the U.S. marathon trials but then made the team in the 10,000 meters. The marathon is her better discipline and she proved just that when she won February’s U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in the blistering hot conditions. She has that win on her resume and proved she can handle the humidity if that happens to be the case on Sunday morning. Training with Flanagan has also helped. Hastings; best finish at a major marathon with East Africans was fourth at the 2014 Chicago Marathon.

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Desi Linden (Chula Vista, Calif.)—Personal best of 2:22:38 from 2011 Boston Marathon

Rio will serve as redemption for Linden as she was forced to drop out of the marathon in London before the five-kilometer mark with a hip injury. When Linden visited New York in June, she shared that she has been fully healthy as her training was about to ramp up for the Summer Games. A healthy Linden has shown that she can compete at a major world stage as she finished fourth overall at the 2015 Boston Marathon and her personal best of 2:22:38 was set when she finished second at the 2011 Boston Marathon.