Tiki Gelana of Ethiopia celebrates as she crosses the finish line to win the gold medal in the Women's Marathon at The Mall on Day 9 of the London 2012 Olympic Games on August 5, 2012 (Getty Images) © Copyright
Just behind Gelana, who won with the smallest margin in Olympic history, Kenya took silver and Russia bronze, thanks to Priscah Jeptoo (2:23:12) and Tatyana Arkhipova (2:23:29).
30 minutes before the start, a heavy thunderstorm broke over The Mall where the start and finish of the women’s marathon was based but thankfully the heaviest of the rain had passed when the gun was fired at 11am. That’s British summer time, in case anyone in the cold and wet here in London wondered.
With the first small loop of 3.57km (2.2 miles) around Westminster and The Mall completed with its iconic backdrops of the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace, the field headed off onto the main loop of 12.875km (8 miles) which they were to run 3 times before finishing back in The Mall to complete the 42.195km (26.2 miles). This distance which composes the modern version of the Marathon race was born in 1908 when London hosted the first of its three Olympic Games, it becoming the established official length from the 1924 Paris Olympics onwards.
Despite the torrential rain which fell on the streets of the British capital throughout much of today’s race, the city’s famous monuments – which also included Trafalgar Square, St Paul’s Cathedral, The Guildhall, Tower of London, and the Monument - shone out brightly giving the course a spectacular backdrop.
118 runners started and by 5km into the race, the USA duo of Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher made the first split in 17:20, accompanied by a group of over 30 other runners which composed all of the favourites. However, their compatriot Desiree Davila and the host nation's Mara Yamauchi were among the early drop outs.
By 10km (34:46) the large lead group was no smaller, with Italy’s Valeria Straneo, Xiaolin Zhu of China and Germany’s Susanne Hahn also featuring on point with the two Americans.
In the group the powerful east African squads of Kenya and Ethiopia were comfortable, as it seemed were the Japanese trio and the rest of the Chinese squad. Running along the Embankment of The Thames running in the direction of the London Eye and the Houses of Parliament, the leaders hit 15km in 52.10, and now it was the turn of the Japanese to show a little up front, Yoshimi Ozaki and Risa Shigetomo, respectively 2:23 and 2:26 performers at their best.
Happy to keep their powder dry in their challenge to take their country’s first ever women’s Olympic marathon title were Kenya’s Mary Keitany, the World Half Marathon record holder and twice London Marathon victor, and her compatriots Edna Kiplagat, the 2011 World champion, and Priscah Jeptoo, who was third in a PB of 2:20:14 in London this spring.
Between 15 and 20km things were not going well for Russia’s Liliya Shobukhova, who with a best of 2:18:20 when winning in Chicago in 2011 is the second fastest woman of all-time and was one of the race favourites. By half way she was 24 seconds adrift of the leading group and not long after she pulled out, holding her right hamstring.
The pace was now hotting-up and as they turned in front of the Tower of London the lead group was thinning rapidly with about 15 to 20 women still in contention. As well as the Kenyans, the three Ethiopians were there too (Tiki Gelana, Aselefech Mergia and Mare Dibaba), and so was Valeria Straneo and also continuing to have a good run were Xiaolin Zhu, Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher.
But then just before 25km, the race really began as Keitany led a Kenyan surge, and the only runners to keep with this up in tempo were the three Ethiopians. 25km was passed with Keitany in the lead (1:26:23) followed by her five fellow east Africans, with Xiaolin Zhu and Flanagan their nearest challengers and battling hard to regain contact.
Surprisingly the Kenyan vs Ethiopian dual match was not to last the pace slowed a little and the 6 leaders became 8 as the Chinese and the American caught-up. However, Flanagan, the Olympic 10,000m bronze medallist in 2008, who has a PB of 2:25:38 with which she won the American Trails race in Houston was now running at full capacity, as was Xiaolin Zhu, who was fourth in the 2008 Olympic race and has a PB of 2:23:57.
Yet when Keitany decided to up the pace again the surprise was that it was not just these two non-Africans who were dropped but also Aselefech Mergia, who had won the 2012 Dubai marathon this year in 2:19:31, and was the 2009 World bronze medallist in Berlin.
At 30km (1:42:44) the five leaders – Kenya’s Keitany, Jeptoo and Kiplagat, and Ethiopia’s Gelana and Dibaba – had a 9 second lead on their nearest challengers who were now led by a fast improving Tatyana Petrova Arkhipova of Russia (2:25:01 PB), who herself had a few seconds advantage over Flanagan.
In the next 2km the Russian closed very fast on the leaders, and as she approached the group Mare Dibaba started to struggle and quickly fell back (finished 23rd 2:28:48), and not long after she was passed by Arkhipova, whose greatest claim to fame before today was her silver medal at the 3000m Steeplechase at the 2007 World Championships. Then before you could hardly blink the lead group of four was again five, as Arkhipova’s surge allowed her to join the east African leaders.
Suddenly the all-conquering Kenyans and Ethiopians looked unusually vulnerable and whatever their true thoughts as the Russian joined them, they would certainly have been shocked that at around 35km (1:59:29) Arkhipova decided to take the lead. And at the same time World champion Kiplagat was beginning to find the pace too hot, drifting off the back of the leading group by 5 seconds at this point and she was to get a lot slower (finished 20th 2:27:52).
At 38km, Keitany, Jeptoo, and Gelana decided enough was enough, with the former injecting some pace in an attempt to drop Arkhipova but the Russian was having none of that and while briefly adrift by 5 metres, quickly caught back-up and nestled in behind the three Africans who were now running three abreast as they went through 40k (2:16:10).
As they turned past The Houses of Parliament for the last time you could have thrown a blanket over the four leaders but for whose victory would that building’s famous clock tower’s bell Big Ben toll when the race ended a couple of kilometres later in The Mall?
500 metres later the final battle was joined when Gelana, the niece of the Sydney Olympic Marathon winner Gezhagne Abera, inflicted what was to be a decisive assault on her opponents’ hopes for gold. The burst by the 24-year-old Ethiopian was enough to immediately end the challenge of pre-race favourite Keitany who dropped back quickly. Also suddenly in trouble was the Russian though she did not fall totally out of contention, but in reality it was only Jeptoo who remained in the fight for the laurels with Gelana.
Turning in front of Buckingham Palace into The Mall, the two protagonists were engaged in a fiery sprint though the Kenyan was never able to close much on Gelana, and with the colossal Queen Victoria Memorial providing an impressive canvas to the finish the Ethiopian took the victory in an Olympic record of 2:23:07.
Jeptoo crossed five seconds later (2:23:12) and raised an arm to salute her silver but there is little doubt that Kenya will be saddened not to have at last taken the Olympic title in this event. Jeptoo’s silver now joins Catherine Ndereba’s two silvers (2004/2008) and Joyce Chepchumba’s bronze (2000) as her country’s collection only podium finishes to date.
If there was disappointment in Kenya, there was only jubilation in the Russian camp as crossing in third was Arkhipova (2:23:29), a surprise bronze in a huge PB, and some consolation following the unexpected early DNF of Shobukhova.
Keitany was very well beaten (2:23:56) in fourth but finishing elated in fifth was Tetyana Gamera-Shmyrko of Ukraine in a national record of 2:24:32.
One of the early pace setters Xiaolin Zhu was next across in 2:24:48, with Portugal’s Jessica Augusto (2:25:11) and another earlier leader Valeria Straneo of Italy (2:25:27) making up the top-8. In ninth came Russia’s Albina Mayorova (2:25:38).
The two Americans Flanagan and Goucher who had been so visible early on came in 10th (2:25:51) and 11th (2:26:07), with Namibia’s Helalia Johannes bringing home a national record of 2:26:09 in 12th.
Romania's defending Olympic champion Constantina Dita (86th, 2:41:34) and her compatriot 2001 World champion Lidia Simon (45th, 2:34:46) never featured in the race.
"It was a great race," said Gelana. "I really loved it. The rain makes it very interesting. As soon as the rain started, I said to myself 'Thank God'. I love running in the rain, I have been doing that since I was a small child. I slipped in the middle of the race and my elbow is still injured. But I didn't feel any pain during the race." Gelana sat in the post race press conference and showed her bandaged right elbow to the assembled media to prove how hard she had fallen.
"I was confident before the race that I could win it. I have been saving my energy for this. It really paid off. I don't know what to say. I am speechless."
"Fatuma (Roba) is my hero. I am extremely happy to share history with her. This gold medal is a gift for all Ethiopians."
Chris Turner for the IAAF