Constantina Tomescu Dita took a big gamble. And it paid off.
Breaking from a large pack just before the mid way point, the 38-year-old Romanian forged off on her own to claim a dominating victory in the seventh women’s Olympic Marathon.
In her third marathon of the year – she was 8th in London and 9th in Osaka – Dita reached the finish in 2:26:44 to become the oldest Olympic champion in the event.
“It was a great performance,” said Dita, who was a distant 20th in Athens four years ago. “Going into the second half, I thought I could do it.”
Her 22-second margin of victory is an impressive enough achievement, but does not adequately illustrate the determined solo effort she produced to claim the first global honour of her largely successful career.
At 15 kilometres (53:52), 33 women were within a second of leaders Souad Ait Salem of Algeria and Britons Paula Radcliffe and Liz Yelling, with no one showing any inclination to make a significant move. With the lead pack still numbering about a dozen, Dita moved up to the front in the 68th minute, but not yet making her break. That decisive move came at one hour, 13 minutes into the race, just before reaching the halfway point in 1:15:11, where she quickly created a four-second lead on the pursuers.
For the next 20 kilometres, she would go on a solo tour of central Beijing that she’ll never forget. At 25 kilometres (1:28:16) her lead grew to 24 seconds, to 57 seconds at 30 kilometres (1:45:04), and to a massive one minute, 10 seconds at 35 kilometres (2:02:00).
By then, the chase pack, now down to just seven, had apparently decided that the only race remaining would be for the remaining two medals. Those were apparently going to be decided by defending champion Catherine Ndereba, her Kenyan compatriot Martha Komu, Chinese Zhou Chunxiu and Zhu Xiaolin, Briton Mara Yamauchi, Russian Irina Timofeeva, and Romanian Lidia Simon, the silver medallist in Sydney eight years ago.
Looking strongest was two-time World champion Ndereba, who in typical fashion whiled away her time in the early going at the back of the chase pack. Zhou, also a sub-2:20 marathoner, appeared comfortable as well and may have carried a slight edge in the waning stages, anticipating the reception that would greet here when reaching the boisterous crowd of more than 50,000 that filled the Bird’s Nest.
But it was of course Dita who would enter first. At 40 kilometres (2:19.07) and with the stadium in full view, she still carried a 60 lsecond? lead. While visibly slowing as she made her way through the entrance tunnel, she was quickly revived by the crowd’s roar, and happily waved back several times as she made her final lap.
“I was pushing very hard and wanted my gold medal,” she said. “I was looking back the whole time.”
Meanwhile the battle for the remaining medals came down to two Kenyans and two Chinese. Ndereba was next to enter, with Zhou just a step behind, seemingly at the ready to strike. With the crowd’s rapturous support, she moved ahead of the Kenyan with just over 200 metres remaining, but Ndereba didn’t give in. Virtually stride-for-stride as they approached the final straight, the Kenyan produced a homestretch dash that would do a middle distance star proud to clinch her second consecutive silver medal, one second ahead of Zhou in 2:27:06.
“I came here to compete and I’m glad that I have done my best,” said Zhou, whose pre-Beijing training was laced with several injury-related disruptions. “However I’m not satisfied with my time.”
Zhu, who passed a fading Komu (2:27:23) soon after entering the stadium was fourth in 2:27:16. A Briton was the sixth runner to enter the stadium and cross the line, but it wasn’t world record holder Paula Radcliffe. Rather it was Japan-based Yamauchi, who clocked 2:27:29.
Radcliffe, whose dramatic withdrawal in Athens four years ago has defined much of her recent career, may have been a sentimental favourite, but in reality was always a long shot after a stress fracture curtailed her training three months ago. After running with the lead pack through the half, she began to lag with a calf pain and by 35 kilometres was some 40 seconds behind the main chase pack. Two hours, 14 minutes into the race she paused briefly to stretch her sore calf, but it didn’t help much.
“It was really sore,” said Radcliffe, who eventually finished 23rd in 2:32:38. “I felt like I was running on one leg.”
It didn’t take long for the race to claim its first major casualty. Before reaching the five kilometre point near the Temple of Heaven, defending bronze medallist Deena Kastor slowed to a walk before pulling out with a foot injury. “I felt a pop in my foot,” said Kastor, the fourth fastest marathoner in history. “I couldn’t stand it. I didn’t expect to be finishing the marathon in a bus.”
In all 13 didn’t finish, with Ethiopia taking a particularly hard hit. Both Berhane Adere and Gete Wami didn’t reach the 35 kilometre check point. The misfortunes of Japan, already rocked by the withdrawal of defending champion Mizuki Noguchi, continued with Reiko Tosa, who ran much of the race in visible pain until finally dropping out just after 25 kilometres.
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF