If there were any doubts about the primacy of Eliud Kipchoge in modern marathoning, they were expunged in Vienna on Saturday morning when the Kenyan Olympic champion and world record holder ran the 42.195 kilometres in one hour, 59 minutes and 40.2 seconds, the historic first sub-two hour marathon. Granted it was done with much assistance, a team of 41 elite pacemakers relaying Kipchoge behind a pace-car projecting a laser display indicating the required tempo over the seven pancake-flat laps on the smooth tarmac of the Prater; all of which negates the time for world record purposes. Nevertheless it was another extraordinary performance by Kipchoge, not least in the exemplary way he comfortably followed the pace per kilometre differing on average no more than four seconds, between 2min 48sec and 2.52.
It is tempting to talk of him as the ‘greatest of all-time,’ and his record of having only lost one marathon in 13 starts since his debut at the distance six years ago underlines his dominance. And it took a world record, by his compatriot Wilson Kipsang to beat him in Berlin 2013. Similarly, when Kipchoge attempted the first sub-two, on the Monza motor racing circuit two years ago, he fell short there, by 26 seconds. But on this occasion, he said from early on in the event that he was sure he was going to succeed; and he agreed that the thousands of fans lining the Prater lap, and cheering themselves hoarse – in contrast to virtually no one at Monza – was also a fillip to his cause.
But, of course, he can only be judged against his peers and his period. And suddenly, not exactly out of nowhere, there is the classiest possible rival to his hegemony. Several days ago, I cast aspersions on the performance of Kenenisa Bekele running 2.01.41, just two seconds shy of Kipchoge’s world record, in the Berlin Marathon last weekend. This was largely based on the 37 year old Ethiopian’s performances elsewhere in recent years. But I have since been assured by sources close to Bekele that he began to take training seriously again several months ago, even to the extent of sequestering himself from his family for lengthy periods; and that even before Berlin, he was back to looking like the lean, mean Bekele of old. Speaking of which, though the records still maintain that Kipchoge is 34 years of age, there is every likelihood that he is the same age as Bekele.
And these two have a history going back to the IAAF World Championships in 2003, when the then virtually unknown Kipchoge (supposedly 17 years old) sprang one of the greatest shocks in track history. Earlier that week in Paris, Bekele had won his first world 10,000 metres title, and Hicham El Guerouj had won his fourth successive 1500 metres’ world title. The Moroccan was already training to accommodate the 1500/5000 metres double that he achieved so memorably the following year in the Olympic Games in Athens. But when everyone was anticipating either Bekele or El Guerrouj doing a double after a burn-up in Paris, Kipchoge took the race by the scruff of the neck and wrung the life and speed out of both the established stars, and won the 5000 metres himself. It remains one of the greatest track races.
So now attention will turn to when this pair will do battle over the marathon distance. And such a contest would be even bigger than Vienna, mostly because it would be a race. There are two possibilities prior to next year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo, where Kipchoge may wish to defend his title. Dubai in January has a super-fast course, and Bekele has already competed there without success; and London in April certainly would not be outbid. Though not so fast, London has already had its share of world records, with Khalid Khannouchi running 2.05.38 in 2002, and Paula Radcliffe running the current women’s record of 2.15.25 in 2003. Kipchoge’s latest of four victories in London, earlier this year, 2.02.37 is the third fastest in history (after himself and Bekele). A further intrigue is that they are, and have always been represented by the same agents, Jos Hermens’ Global Sports Communications.
But the last word today must go to Kipchoge’s fabulous run; and it begins with a minor gripe about the BBCTV coverage of Vienna. We could have done without the narcissistic young interviewer telling Kipchoge that he was in tears at the end of the Kenyan’s effort. His bosses should remind him that this wasn’t about him. It was all about Eliud Kipchoge.