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Olympics

Toughest road to London? Kenya's marathon team ran it

Through an accident of birth, Ryan Hall is going to his second Olympic Games this summer.

Hall is the second-fastest American marathon runner in history, but had he been born a Kenyan, he'd be watching the Games on television, like 36 Kenyans who ran faster than he did last year alone.

Following last month's London Marathon, Kenya named its Olympic men's marathon team, putting its hopes for gold in Wilson Kipsang, Abel Kirui and Moses Mosop.

Kipsang won the London race in a time of 2:04:44, just four seconds off the course record. He is also the second fastest marathon runner in history, having clocked 2:03:42 last year in Frankfurt.

Kirui was only the 42nd fastest marathon runner (and 33rd fastest Kenyan) in the world last year, just 26 seconds quicker than Hall, but his time came in winning the World Championships marathon in Daegu, South Korea, a feat that made him only the third man to defend his title in that event. In the world of championship marathon running, Abel Kirui has shown he can bring it.

Moses Mosop won the Chicago Marathon last year in a time (2:05:37) that ranked him ninth in the world (and ninth in Kenya!) and he finished a close second (2:03:06) to compatriot Geoffrey Mutai (2:03:02) in last year's Boston Marathon, which was the fastest marathon ever run, although the downhill course is not certified for record purposes.

But if Ryan Hall were Kenyan, and sitting at home this month watching the Olympics on TV, he'd be in good company. Kenya left world record holder Patrick Makau (2:03:38) off the squad, as well as Mutai, who in addition to his fast win in Boston, also broke (2:05:05) the 10-year-old course record in the New York City Marathon last year.

For Hall, and every other runner who won't wear a black, red and green vest in London, the good news is that Kenya is limited to three representatives in the Olympic marathon. Against non-Kenyans, Hall stacks up quite well.

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Hall too ran fast in last year's downhill, tailwind-aided Boston Marathon, clocking 2:04:58 to finish fourth behind Mutai, Makau and Ethiopia's Gebregziabher Gebremariam, but he also ran 2:08:04 in Chicago to finish fifth, and his legal best is 2:06:17, in London in 2008.

Hall ranked 52nd in the world on time last year, but only 13 non-Kenyans ran faster, and of those, seven were Ethiopian. Like Kenya and every other nation, Ethiopia can enter only three runners in the Olympic marathon.

Other good news for Hall is that he acquitted himself with honor in the last Olympic Games, in Beijing. In warm conditions he started conservatively, and moved up throughout the race to finish 10th, one place behind top-placed American Dathan Ritzenhein, who finished fourth in this year's Olympic marathon trials and made the U.S. Olympic team in the 10,000 meters, finishing 13th in the final on August 4.

An American runner with an even better Olympic pedigree than Hall is Meb Keflezighi, who beat Hall in the U.S. Olympic marathon trials in Houston in January, setting a personal best of 2:09:08 at the age of 36, and who earned the silver medal in the marathon at the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004. Keflezighi's medal in Athens was the first marathon medal for an American man since Frank Shorter won the gold in Munich in 1972.

Can Keflezighi win another medal in London? Despite his advanced years (he turned 37 in May), Meb has run two personal bests in a row, the previous one coming in the New York City Marathon last year, despite having forgotten to remove his Breathe-Right nasal strip from where he'd stored it in his racing shoe and incurring a blister that kept him from running for three weeks after the race.

Tucsonan Abdi Abdirahman is the third American man who will run in London, thanks to his third place finish in the Olympic trials. Abdirahman has a personal best of 2:08:56, dating from 2006, but he is a four-time Olympian and four-time U.S. national champion in the 10,000 meters.

Will an American medal in London? It's not impossible. Meb Keflezighi certainly wasn't a pre-race pick for a medal in 2004, but marathon racing leaves little margin for error – a fall at a water station or a brief cramp can drop a favorite out of contention, unable to catch up. The bronze medalist in 2004 was Vanderlei Lima, who had been leading the race until he was attacked by a mentally disturbed Irish priest who wanted to share with a global television audience his belief that the world would soon be coming to an end. Lima was helped to his feet after the attack by a Greek spectator, but his pace slackened, and he was overtaken by Keflezighi and eventual winner Stefano Baldini.

It's worth remembering also that until former world record holder Sammy Wanjiru destroyed the field in 2008 in Beijing, Kenya had never won an Olympic marathon, and only two Kenyan men had won marathon medals of any description in an Olympic Games.

But the best advice on picking an Olympic marathon winner comes from women’s world record holder Paula Radcliffe, who last year observed, “In the marathon, anything can happen.”

Roberto De Vido writes cartoons and comics about politics, sports (and life) from a small fishing and farming village an hour southwest of Tokyo.

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George Roberts/Wikimedia

Ryan Hall during the 2009 Boston Marathon.

“In the marathon, anything can happen.”

— marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe