Watching Sunday’s Chicago Marathon in the company of elite runners in the athletics-rich Nandi County capital of Kapsabet, I cringed at the sight of Galen Rupp shaking away defending champion Abel Kirui with a surge at the 38th-kilometre mark as the American cruised to victory.
It dampened the mood at the Stevenice Hyde Park Hotel where scores of athletes, including members of Kirui’s family, had assembled to follow the race in an activation organized by the Bank of Africa.
The hotel is just a few metres from Kirui’s home, thus the somber mood was understandable. But then again, I thought Rupp’s victory was good for athletics. And here, I’m assuming he’s running clean.
As much as we would have loved to see a Kenyan winner, again, America’s first win in 15 years holds good for distance running.
Since Khalid Khannouchi, a Morocco-born American, won the Chicago Marathon in 2002, the stars and stripes have never tasted victory in “Windy City”, and that comforted Sunday’s result that was punctuated with another American podium as Jordan Hasay improved her personal best time by two minutes, clocking two hours, 20 minutes and 57 seconds for third place in the women’s race.
Incidentally, born in Meknes, Morocco, in 1971, Khannouchi first won the Chicago title as a Moroccan in 1999 before clinching it as an American the following year.
Which means one would have to dig 35 years back to 1982 to get the first “real” American to win in Chicago when Grand Rapids legend Greg Meyer won the race in 2:10:59.
Rupp’s win was significant in many ways.
Most importantly, it was a great marketing coup for Rupp’s shoe sponsors — American sportswear giants Nike — who fund the “Nike Oregon Project” at the company’s “campus” in Beaverton, Oregon, that has produced Rupp, Hasay and other top distance runners including multiple Olympic and world track champion Mo Farah of Great Britain.
Other Nike Oregon Project team members include Mathew Centrowitz, the first American in 108 years to win an Olympic gold in the 1,500 metres after his shock victory in Rio de Janeiro last year, and world indoor 1,500m champion Sifan Hassan of The Netherlands.
Never mind the fact that a dark clouds hangs over the “project” team leader, Alberto Salazar (following claims of substance abuse under his watch in Oregon), the head coach and US National Distance Runners hall-of-famer celebrated for his exploits in distance running that include a silver medal in the 1982 IAAF World Cross Country Championships and victory in the New York Marathon with a world’s best debut 2:09:41.
Salazar also broke the world marathon record at 2:08:13 in the 1981 New York Marathon and won the Boston Marathon the following year.
Irked by the decline of US distance running talent, Salazar was instrumental in setting up the Nike Oregon Project and has even been honoured by having one of the buildings at the Nike campus named after him.
Sunday’s podium finishes by his protégés Rupp and Hasay will most certainly help rekindle American interest after years of dominance by Kenyan and Ethiopian stars.
And this is good news for a discipline that recorded falling interest in the west following this East African dominance that also saw the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) scrap the short course (four-kilometre) race at the World Cross Country Championships.
The championships also ceased being an annual competition, switching to a biennial format seen by many as IAAF’s response to the apathy ignited by African dominance.
Chatting with Rupp and Hasay on the sidelines of April’s Prague Half Marathon in the Czech capital, I could see their focus and determination to revive American interest in distance running.
Later that month, Rupp boosted such interest with a second-place at Boston before Sunday’s big win in Chicago (2:09:20).
His triumph will most certainly renew sponsor interest in the sport besides challenging Kenyan stars to up their game and not rest on their laurels. It would be good to also see a British win, for example, in the London Marathon which could be more likely in 2018 with Mo Farah’s foray into the 42.195-kilometre race.
Before Chicago, Kenyan runners had won all World Marathon Majors titles on offer with Wilson Kipsang and Sarah Chepchirchir triumphant in Tokyo, Geoffrey Kirui and Ednah Kiplagat winning in Boston before Daniel Wanjiru and Mary Keitany topped in London.
While bringing a lot of joy to Kenya, such victories are not good for the sport. It is when underdogs and rank outsiders win that sport becomes more exciting.
But 31-year-old Rupp wasn’t exactly an outsider, having proved his mettle in distance running by winning bronze over 10,000m at the 2012 London Olympics and silver in last year’s Rio Olympics’ marathon behind Eliud Kipchoge.
He was second in Boston in a 2:09:58 PB. His victory is good for athletics.
Our hats off, nonetheless, to Kirui (2:09:48), Bernard Kipyego (2:10:23) and Brigid Kosgei (2:20:22), for their podium finishes in Chicago that helped keep the Kenyan flag flying high.