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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Olympic Preview: Marathons

The Schedule: Sunday, Aug 24 (live on NBC, Saturday at 7:30 p.m. EDT)
The Americans: Ryan Hall, Dathan Ritzenhein, Brian Sell
The Contenders: Sammy Wanjiru (KEN), Martin Lel (KEN), Robert Cheruyiot (KEN), Mubarak Shami (QAT), Abderrahim Goumri (MAR), Jaouad Gharib (MAR), Tsegaye Kebede (ETH), Tsuyoshi Ogata (JPN)
The Stats: Records, 2008 List, 2007 Worlds, 2004 Olympics
The Medal Picks: T&FN - Wanjiru, Lel, Goumri; SI - Lel, Goumri, Kebede
The Story: If you look at the World Marathon Majors leader board, you would expect the race to come down to Lel, Cheruyiot and Goumri, or new half-marathon World Record holder Wanjiru. But that's predicting the future based solely on what has happened in the past, and that's an iffy proposition for the marathon.

First off, athletes compete so rarely that we just don't have enough information to tell who will be at their best and who will not. This is even more true in Olympic marathons, where athletes may have spent their whole lives preparing for this one single race in preference over all others. So you are interested in an athlete who is ascendant rather than dominant...someone like, say, Ryan Hall. Or someone else we're much less aware of.

Tsegaye Kebede answers that call. He won his first marathon, in course record time in Addis Ababa (2:15), then ran 2:08 and 2:06, plus a sub-60:00 half and a couple of 10k road wins, all in the last 13 months.

But the other confounding factor in this race will be the heat and humidity. The always-well-peaked Japanese are no strangers to these conditions. The U.S. runners have their own not-so-secret weapon they used to great advantage in Athens.

Predictions? I'm not making any. Just sit back, watch, and enjoy it.

The Schedule: Sunday, Aug 17 (live on NBC, Saturday at 7:30 p.m. EDT)
The Americans: Deena Kastor, Magdalena Lewy-Boulet, Blake Russell
The Contenders: Zhou Chunxiu (CHN), Catherine Ndereba (KEN), Gete Wami (ETH), Paula Radcliffe (GBR), Zhu Xiaolin (CHN), Reiko Tosa (JPN)
The Stats: Records, 2008 List, 2007 Worlds, 2004 Olympics
The Medal Picks: T&FN - Zhou, Ndereba, Wami; SI - Zhou, Wami, Ndereba
The Story: Big recent news: Defending champ Noguchi is not running. Less big, less recent: Paula Radcliffe is in.

The universal favorite is China's own Zhou Chunxiu, and personally I don't see anyone else jumping out at me as someone else to pick. On the other hand, Ndereba beat her at last year's Worlds where both had to deal with the same kind of heat and humidity nearly guaranteed in this year's race. And her recent win in the NYC Half Marathon can either be viewed as proof of top condition or an energy-sapping effort too close to the big race. I just don't know what to think.

How about Radcliffe? Under normal circumstances, I'd say no way. Throughout her career, she has shown an inability to allow any runner to be ahead of her at any time, and in hot conditions with dozens of great runners (some talented but highly inexperienced) such impatience is not rewarded. But her professed worries about her injury and conditioning might actually turn the "I can't be behind" switch in her brain to the off position, giving her a chance to medal if not win. But if she goes right to the front it's over.

Kastor is the only American with any kind of chance, and I don't think she has much of one.

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