The Olympics ends its track and field programme in conventional style with the Men's Marathon, and hot-favourite, Eliud Kipchoge, is worth opposing, writes Jack Houghton, while Lemi Berhanu could cause a surprise in an open race
"There are good reasons to question whether Kipchoge will be at his best in Rio... the winner of the Olympic marathon is rarely an established winner on the spring/autumn marathon masters merry-go-round..."
It might seem churlish to pick holes in the chances of Kipchoge adding Olympic gold to his already stellar marathon record. After all, for many commentators, in a short, three-year career at the distance, he has established himself as the greatest marathoner of all time, winning six out of seven starts, all of them in the most competitive races, and recording a time of 2.03.05 in London in April which, for many people, represents a faster run than Kimetto's world record which was set on the lightning-fast streets of Berlin.
There are good reasons to question whether Kipchoge will be at his best in Rio, though. First, the winner of the Olympic marathon is rarely an established winner on the spring/autumn marathon masters merry-go-round. Sammy Wanjiru's win in Beijing 2008 is an outlier in that regard. Especially in recent years, the best East African marathoners have either not competed at the Olympics, or not been at their best, presumably because much more lucrative - in fact, life-changing - options are available on the streets of Dubai, Berlin, London, Chicago and New York which don't fit with training for, and competing in, a mid-summer marathon.
Part of the reason for this may also be the different conditions athletes face in championship marathons. Kipchoge has run all his marathons in cool temperatures with low humidity. For the first time in Rio he will face 26 degrees and climbing, with humidity in the range of 70-80% making it feel hotter still. He might revel in it, but it is a different test to the marathons he's dominated so far in his career, and so represents a punting risk.
Another reason may be the absence of pacemakers. Big city marathons lure the best names with guarantees of pacemakers running specific, regular (and fast) times. Tactically speaking, the winners of these races do not need to make any decisions until the closing miles, when those pacemakers are no longer present. Wilson Kipsang, prohibitive favourite for the marathon in London 2012, boasting a similar run of recent form to that which Kipchoge brings into the Rio race, scuppered any chance of victory when he decided to try and break the field 6 miles in, running the next few miles at a suicidal sub-2-hour pace. Kipchoge may not adopt such maverick tactics, but he'll nonetheless have to either set a fast pace himself, or else deal with a tactically more complex slower pace.
Kipchoge is the most likely winner, but given his odds and the history of the Olympic marathon, I'll be looking elsewhere.
Another issue for Kipchoge is that this is a stacked field. Stanley Biwott, Lemi Berhanu, Tesfaye Abera, Feyisa Lelisa are allcapable of running well sub-2.05, meaning that Kipchoge would have to go really fast for them not to be able to stay with him. And the likes of Ghirmay Ghebreslassie, Stephen Kiprotich and Meb Keflezighi have all shown that they might not be the fastest over the distance, but they know how to peak for major championships, deal with the different conditions, and make the right tactical decisions to win.
On top of that there are a host of other runners with interesting chances - like American Galen Rupp, who finished 5th in the 10,000m behind Mo Farah at the start of the Olympic athletic programme, and Kaan Kigen Ozbilen, the ex-Kenyan (previously called Mike Kigen) and new European record holder, both of whom will likely thrive in the hot conditions.
If Kipchoge doesn't dominate, it is a very open race, but preference is for the aforementioned Lemi Berhanu. His Dubai win in 2.04.33 showed he can run fast in the heat, and he won in Boston in April, where pacemakers are not permitted, showing that he has the tactical nous that will be so important as the runners loop round Rio.