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Who and What to Watch in the Men’s Olympic Marathon

The world's fastest marathoner — Eliud Kipchoge — is the odds-on Olympic favorite, but can he handle the heat?

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A 26.2-mile test on the streets of Sapporo, this year’s Olympic marathon will likely feel a whole lot longer for competitors with hot temperatures and high humidity the norm in Japan at this time of year — even in the northern island of Hokkaido. While many big-city marathons employ pacemakers who push things along from the start, the rabbit-less early pace in championship marathons is usually pedestrian, as athletes bide their time and wait for others to make a move. The pace will often increase after the first 10K, and by halfway will usually be moving at a similar pace to Marathon Majors. As in all marathons, the final 10K is the key section, where the leading contenders finally play their hand, the pack thins to a few, and, in the end, the medals are decided. At this Olympics it may come down to who best survives the war of attrition, given how difficult the conditions could be.

When it comes to the Tokyo Olympic marathon field, the only real place to start is with the fastest man of all time: Eliud Kipchoge.

Eliud Kipchoge will again be challenged by a strong Ethiopian team and Galen Rupp, as he was in the marathon at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
Eliud Kipchoge will again be challenged by a strong Ethiopian team and Galen Rupp, as he was in the marathon at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Photo: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Men’s Olympic Marathon Preview

The men’s race all hinges on the form of Kipchoge, who was imperious at the marathon for seven years before his shock defeat in London last October, where heavy rain and a blocked ear caused the world record holder to underperform and trail in eighth. Many believed that father time might have finally caught up with Kipchoge, but the 36-year-old stamped his supremacy once again on his sole outing this year, winning with ease at April’s NN Mission Marathon in the Netherlands in 2:04:30. 

Despite Ethiopian great Kenenisa Bekele failing to make his national team, Kipchoge’s biggest threat will still likely come from his East African rivals, with Ethiopian trio Lelisa Desisa, Shura Kitata and Sisay Lema — all truly world-class operators. Kitata won the London Marathon last year but the 25-year-old was under no illusions about who is still the top dog in this domain. 

“Kipchoge is the king of us,” Kitata said after that win in London. “Today and tomorrow, he is the king of athletics.”

Galen Rupp will be hoping for a repeat of 2016, where the American won the Olympic marathon bronze medal behind Kipchoge in Rio, and he’ll be joined on the U.S. team by Jake Riley and 44-year old Abdi Abdirahman, running in his 5th Olympic Games. 

Champions in the Heat

Championship marathons have a different feel to majors, and that’ll be the case in Sapporo, which is over 500 miles from Tokyo, the event moved by to reduce the likelihood of extreme heat and humidity. 

“The fitter you are, the better you’ll handle the heat,” said Amy Cragg, who finished ninth in the 2016 Olympic marathon in Rio and third in the 2017 World Championships marathon in London. “One thing with championship marathons is the last 10K, historically, is always fast, regardless of whether the first 20 miles are fast or slow. You always have to be prepared.”

Cragg believes Kipchoge will prove “very, very tough to beat” even if conditions and the lack of pacemakers make it more of a lottery than at Marathon Majors. 

“We saw Kipchoge falter in London but I think he’ll correct that,” said Cragg. “Even if they run a much slower time than normal, I still think they’ll be up there.”

Runners will set off from Odori Park and complete two laps there before heading into the streets of Sapporo for a three-loop course, where spectators have been asked not to line the roads due to current Covid-19 restrictions. The race will finish back in the park, where it will come as a major surprise if the gold medals aren’t won by the undisputed king and queen of the 26.2-mile distance: Kipchoge and Kosgei.  

Schedule

Men’s Marathon

Date: August 8 (Japan) / August 7 (U.S.) — Final
Time: 7 a.m. local time / 6 p.m. EDT

Course Details and History