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Preview of the Olympic Women's Marathon

K.Ken Nakamura

20 September 2000 – The honour of having the most exciting entry list for a women’s Olympic marathon, most would agree, would go to Los Angeles in 1984, where Joan Benoit, Greta Waitz, Rosa Mota and Ingrid Kristiansen - four of the all-time greatest marathon runners - battled for medals. But the expected field in Sydney can certainly claim to better than the last two editions of the Olympics.

As demonstrated in the table of combined performances for 1999 and 2000 below, of the top 14 runners in the last two years, only Hiroyama, Tosa and Dörre (the first two because they were not selected, the third because of injury) will be missing from the start line in Sydney. Another notable absentee is 1999 World World Champion Jong Song-Ok.

Combined Performance List, 1999 & 2000

2:20:43 Tegla Loroupe KEN 1 Berlin 26 Sep 1999
2:22:12 Eri Yamaguchi JPN 1 Tokyo 21 Nov 1999
2:22:19 Naoko Takahashi JPN 1 Nagoya 12 Mar 2000
2:22:48 T Loroupe 1 Rotterdam 18 Apr 1999
2:22:54 Lidia Simon ROM 1 Osaka 30 Jan 2000
2:22:56 Harumi Hiroyama JPN 2 Osaka 30 Jan 2000
2:23:22 Joyce Chepchumba KEN 1 London 18 Apr 1999
2:23:24 L Simon 1 Osaka 31 Jan 1999
2:23:25 Fatuma Roba ETH 1 Boston 19 Apr 1999
2:23:31 Esther Wanjiru KEN 3 Osaka 30 Jan 2000
2:23:43 Marleen Renders BEL 1 Paris 9 Apr 2000
2:23:46 T Loroupe 2 Osaka 31 Jan 1999
2:23:47 Maura Viceconte ITA 1 Wien 21 May 2000
2:23:58 M Renders 2 Berlin 26 Sep 1999
2:24:06 Adriana Fernandez MEX 2 London 18 Apr 1999
2:24:33 T Loroupe 1 London 16 Apr 2000
2:24:35 Katrin Dörre GER 1 Hamburg 25 Apr 1999
2:24:36 Reiko Tosa JPN 2 Nagoya 12 Mar 2000
2:24:46 L Simon 2 London 16 Apr 2000
2:24:47 Elfenesh Alemu ETH 4 Osaka 30 Jan 2000
2:24:55 E Alemu 1 Nagano 9 Apr 2000
2:24:57 J Chepchumba 3 London 16 Apr 2000 

Although marathon running is not about one-on-one competition, this year's race is generally expected to be a showdown between Kenya’s Tegla Loroupe and Naoko Takahashi of Japan. Fatuma Roba and Lidia Simon should also be considered as major contenders, but in last few years both have only one major win to their name: Roba in Boston, and Simon at the Osaka Ladies marathon.

On the other hand both Loroupe and Takahashi look unbeatable lately.

Takahashi's most recent defeat was in the 1997 Osaka Ladies marathon, her debut at the marathon distance. For her last three marathons, Takahashi has run 2:25:48, 2:21:47 and 2:22:19, and in each of these, the Japanese star has recorded at least one 5Km split in slightly above 16 minutes.

Loroupe's last defeat was in the 1999 Osaka Ladies marathon where she was out-duelled by Simon. Loroupe has run the two fastest times ever - 2:20:43 and 2:20:47 - and even showed that she can win a competitive all-women's race as she did in this year's London marathon.

Loroupe is in supreme shape this season, having bettered her track personal bests in Europe on several occasions this season. She brought her 5000m PB down to 14:48.04 in Stockholm and then to 14:45.95 in London. She also improved her 3000m personal record to 8:30.95. Loroupe's strength is definitely in her track speed, unmatched by any other marathon runner. Although both Renders and Viceconte have set 10,000m personal bests this year - 31:03.60 for Renders and 31:05.57 for Viceconte – they are still not in Loroupe's league on the track.

Takahashi is reported to be in awesome shape, ready to run a 2:17 marathon if necessary. She has done two long runs of over 40km at 3500m. The legendary coach Yoshio Koide, who led Yuko Arimori to two Olympic medals and Hiromi Suzumi to the World Championships was quoted as saying in Japan’s Track & Field Magazine: "If she could avoid injury over the next one month, it will be very interesting. She is in the best shape of her life." Unlike Yuko Arimori, Takahashi is very relaxed even with the marathon less than a week away.

Eri Yamaguchi, who made a major breakthrough at the 1999 Tokyo Ladies marathon, is also reported to be in better shape than last year when she performed 2:22:12. She ran 15:47.82 for the 5000m on September 2, her last track race before leaving for Australia.

1999 World Championship silver medallist Ari Ichihashi is also reported to have done better training both in quality and quantity than last year. She has been training at high altitude in Switzerland repeating the format that worked well prior to last year’s World Championships.

What makes marathon watching interesting is the strategy and tactics employed by runners; it is about the thrill of anticipating major moves - dictated by the marathon course as well as weather conditions. The Sydney 2000 Olympic marathon course will be tough and the wind will be a factor, to which David Monti of Race Results Weekly commented: "Don't expect any fast times".

The course starts with a 50m elevation drop from 0.5Km to 1.5Km, which should be run with caution, or else the runners may pay for it in the later stages of the race. Then there are several steep hills over the course, which Eri Yamaguchi has described as a roller coaster ride.

The 1984 Olympic men's marathon was generally expected to be a showdown between Toshihiko Seko and Rob de Castella. The more superstitious amongst us would refer to the jinx: "a favourite never wins the Olympic marathon," as neither won. Carlos Lopes took the gold by making a decisive surge after both Seko and then De Castella had faded.

So will one of the favourites - Loroupe or Takahashi - win? And if neither, who will take the gold medal?