Olympics: Crack team may lay ghost of Wanjiru to rest

By Paul Lewis

Sammy Wanjiru winning at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Photo / Getty Images
Sammy Wanjiru winning at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Photo / Getty Images

It's the key question in the men's marathon tonight: Will the ghost of Sammy Wanjiru be felt?

When the brilliant 21-year-old broke the tape at the finish line of the marathon in Beijing in 2008, he made the sign of the cross and sank to his knees. It was a moment like that of the All Blacks winning, at last, the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

A long, puzzling and damaging drought had ended. Kenya, the mass production masters of long distance athletics, finally had an Olympic marathon champion to acclaim.

Wanjiru shaped as a marathon giant. After winning at Beijing in record time, he also won the London and Chicago marathons, both in record times.

But he also set more dubious records. He was the only Olympic marathon champion to be arrested after brandishing an AK47 assault rifle at his wife, a maid and a security guard in 2010. Last year he became the only Olympic marathon champion to be killed after his wife caught him in bed with another woman - he apparently jumped from a first-floor balcony in a desperate attempt to stop his wife leaving his luxury house near Nairobi.

So the Kenyans - another crack trio of Wilson Kipsang (winner of this year's London Marathon in a blisteringly fast time), last year's world champion Abel Kirui and Emmanuel Mutai - will be running not just for present day glory but also in memory of Wanjiru. Their quality is such that Kenyan world record holder Patrick Makau couldn't even get in the team.

There has never been a clean sweep of the marathon medals by one country - as the Jamaicans did in the men's 200m recently - and while such a scenario is possible, the Ethiopians will have something to say about that.

From Abebe Bekele who won back-to-back Olympic marathons in the 1960s through 1968 champion Mamo Wolde to Haile Gebrselassie, the former two-time world record holder, Ethiopia has impeccable Olympic marathon credentials. It has selected three men with exceptionally fast marathon times: Ayele Abshero, Dino Sefer and Getu Feleke - all of whom have run 2h 04m.

For the US, Meb Keflezighi, Ryan Hall and Abdi Abdirahman are a respected trio and Hall is one of the few men in the field to have run under 2h 05m. Keflezighi was the silver medallist in Athens 2004.

However, the marathon being the event it is, surprises can easily occur. Morocco's two biggest names are missing - Beijing silver medallist Jaouad Gharib was not selected and Abderrahim Goumri was suspended from the sport following a doping charge from the 2011 world championships. But they will still have tough athletes in Adil Annani and Abderrahim Bouramdane.

For a roughie, try Brazil's Marilson Gomes dos Santos, twice the winner of the tough New York marathon. Stephen Kiprotich of Uganda and Japan's Arawata Fujiwara are other chances but the flat course and the cooler weather will likely play into the hands of the marathon speed merchants (as opposed to the strength and endurance runners).

- Herald on Sunday

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