Skip to main content
Original Issue

Inside Olympic Sports

Top marathoners were out in force in London, Rotterdam and Boston

April once belonged to the Boston Marathon, a New England rite
of spring with a long and colorful list of characters and
traditions. Boston is home to Johnny Kelley and Heartbreak Hill,
Bill Rodgers and Joan Benoit Samuelson. It remains the most
treasured marathon in the world.

However, it no longer has exclusive rights to its own month. The
third weekend in April has become an annual feast of
marathoning, in which Boston is the last (by virtue of its
Monday Patriots Day start), but no longer the main, course. The
Rotterdam and London marathons are run the day before Boston,
and each has established itself as a premier event in the
ever-faster world of elite marathoning. Rotterdam's
tabletop-flat course annually imperils world bests, while
London's roughly $3.3 million budget enables it to assemble the
most glamorous field of any major marathon in the world.

There is plenty of talent to feed not only the two European
marathons but also Boston. As African runners have crushed world
track records at distances from 1,500 to 10,000 meters, so have
they raised the marathon standard, towing the rest of the world
behind them. In 1998 at Rotterdam, Tegla Loroupe of Kenya ran a
women's world best of 2:20:47, cutting 19 seconds from Ingrid
Kristiansen's 1983 mark. Five months later unknown Ronaldo da
Costa of Brazil ran a men's world best of 2:06:05 in the Berlin
marathon, bettering the 2:06:50 run by Belayneh Dinsamo of
Ethiopia a decade earlier. Ten men (four of them Kenyans) ran
2:07:57 or faster last year, with six of those performances
coming in spring's big three.

Thus it was no surprise that last weekend produced another batch
of fast times, terrific racing and even a record-keeping
controversy. In Rotterdam, Loroupe was close to record pace at
the halfway point, but slowed while running virtually alone to
win in 2:22:50. In London, Joyce Chepchumba, also of Kenya, won
the women's division in 2:23:22. Though her time was 32 seconds
slower than Loroupe's in Rotterdam--and 2:35 off Loroupe's world
best--Chepchumba was awarded a $125,000 bonus from London
organizers for setting a world record.

Confused? Welcome to the arcane world of women's road racing. It
has been argued that Loroupe was paced by male runners in her
1998 Rotterdam run, and that most fast women's times are aided
by having men in the race. For that reason London
organizers--who start their women's race 25 minutes before the
men's--declared that the true women's world record was the
fastest time ever run in an all-woman marathon: a 2:23:24 turned
in by Lidia Simon of Romania at the Osaka women's marathon in
January. Chepchumba ran two seconds faster.

The London men's winner squandered his chance to cash in on a
record. After holding off two-time winner Antonio Pinto of
Portugal, Abdelkader El Mouaziz of Morocco waltzed across the
finish line in 2:07:57, waving to spectators and easily losing
the two seconds by which he missed Pinto's course record and a
$25,000 bonus. In Rotterdam, Japhet Kosgei of Kenya became the
seventh-fastest marathoner in history with a victory in 2:07:11.
In a race designed for fast times, five men broke 2:08.

A day later Kosgei's countryman Joseph Chebet won in Boston--the
race's ninth straight Kenyan champion-- in 2:09:52. Fatuma Roba
of Ethiopia took her third women's title in 2:23:25.

Intriguing times lie ahead for the marathon. Loroupe's
performances have made it plain that women will soon be breaking
2:20. Among the men, Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia, who holds
the world records in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters and is arguably
the greatest talent in distance running history, has said he
will turn to the marathon after the 2000 Olympics. With that
promise, he casts a giant shadow over the event, no small feat
for a man barely more than five feet tall.

Mt. SAC Relays

Wanted: Competition for Marion Jones. As track's new superstar
steamrollered through a spectacular 1998, winning 35 of 36
finals (19 in the 100 meters, six in the 200, one in the 400 and
nine in the long jump, in which she lost in the last meet of the
season to German veteran Heike Drechsler), the sight of her
winning by comical margins became commonplace. Jones threatened
the 100- and 200-meter world records set by the late Florence
Griffith Joyner in 1988, as well as the world long jump record
of Galina Chistyakova of the Soviet Union, all without company.
It is staggering to think what she could accomplish with someone
pushing her.

Part of the problem is of her own making: She's too good. Part
is not. Minutes before the start of the women's 400 meters at
last Saturday's Mt. SAC Relays in Walnut, Calif., meet director
Scott Davis lamented, "I've had the field filled three times,
and people keep scratching on me. Nobody wants to run against
Marion." Jones was left to run virtually unchallenged in a field
of five and cruised to an easy victory in 50.79. "The goal was
to run sub-50," Jones said after the race. "But I was expecting
a little stronger field."

Track has long suffered from the unwillingness of its stars to
compete head-to-head. British middle-distance runners Sebastian
Coe and Steve Ovett ducked each other shamelessly in the late
'70s and early '80s. Sprinters Carl Lewis of the U.S. and Linford
Christie of Great Britain did likewise in the early '90s.

Jones's talent makes her nearly unbeatable when she's sharp.
Still, it is up to other athletes to take on the challenge. U.S.
sprinter Gail Devers is healthy. France's Marie-Jose Perec, who
won the 200 and the 400 at the Atlanta Olympics, is training
hard again after two years of injuries. Shame on them both if
they don't seize every opportunity to face Jones.

Men's Sprinting

A year ago training partners Ato Boldon of Trinidad and Maurice
Greene of the U.S. began boasting in March of their planned
assault on Donovan Bailey's 100-meter world record of 9.84
seconds, set in the Atlanta Olympics final, calling the mark
"soft." Between them, they ran 16 legal sub-10s in 1998, but
neither got the record. This year both will chase the 100-meter
world championship at Seville in August, but there will be no
talk of the record. "We're not banging our head against that
wall this year," Boldon says. Well, maybe they'll bang it a
little. Both plan to run the 100 at the May 6 Modesto Relays,
where organizers have put up a $200,000 world-record bonus.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN GICHIGI/ALLSPORT World-record holder Da Costa (2), who finished 17th, was just one of the towering figures in London.

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Jones's easy win in the 400 at Mt. SAC is a sign of fast times ahead.