How to pick an Olympic marathon team…

Because it’s such a strenuous event and requires long preparation, marathon runners are usually the first athletes to be selected for a major competition. Other track and field competitors might have to wait until one or two months before the event, but a marathon runner should already be at least halfway through their training by then, and needs to know if they’re going or not!

The International Olympic association sets two time standards (A & B) each for men and for women. For London 2012, these A&B standards are 2:15 and 2:18 for men, 2:37 and 2:45 for women respectively. Each nation may enter up to three athletes. They may enter between one and three ‘A’ athletes but only one ‘B’. In addition, Marathon runners who have finished in the top 20 at last year’s World Championships and top 10 finishers from top city marathons are deemed to have met the ‘A’ standard. Once the athletes have reached these standards, it is completely at the discretion of the country’s Olympic Association who goes to the Olympics. There are several ways this can be decided, ranging from the very simple to the infinitely complicated.

 Selection Race

By far the simplest way to pick a team is, as is done in the US, hold a selection race. This can be an independent race or part of an existing one, and the first 3 eligible athletes across the line get a ticket to the Olympics. Runners don’t necessarily need to run the Olympic qualifying time in the selection race, but do need to run it during the qualifying period (the Olympic year and previous year).  This method of selection is pretty hard to argue with, but it relies on who runs best on the day – there are no second chances or opportunities for appeal. As Marathon trials are generally held early, those who don’t make the team can still try out for the 10000 m.


Some countries pick there runner’s based on their best time during the qualifying period. This can be slightly problematic as not all Marathons are equally difficult.  For example, for the British team, Claire Hallissey, who ran 2:27 in London this year, was selected over Jo Pavey, who ran 2:28 in New York last Autumn. Most people would agree that the difficulty of the course in New York is worth more than one minute over London. Supporting this argument, Pavey placed higher, coming in 9th to Hallissey’s 11th. Similarly, Irish runner Maria McCambridge lost out by mere seconds to her countrywoman Catriona Jennings – however McCambridge ran her time on the cobblestones of Rome, whilst Jennings ran in pancake-flat Rotterdam.

Selection Panel

For countries that are too small to hold selection races, yet want to go on more than just time, a selection panel can select the Athletes. Time and race positions are usually considered, as can any number of factors, including internal loyalties or disputes and influence from sponsors. As you can see below, this can be very contentious, and doesn’t always mean the best athletes get picked.

Kenya – dominant in 2011, but what about 2012?

By far the biggest shock selection came from Kenya last month, which chose to leave the World Record holder, world best time holder and last year’s Marathon Majors champion off the team. To be fair to the selectors, they did have a tough job – they had some 200 athletes who had achieved the qualifying standard to choose from. The selection was narrowed down to a shortlist of six by this spring:

  • Patrick Makau – world record holder (2:03:38) Berlin 2011 winner
  • Wilson Kipsang – 2nd (record-legal) all time (2:03:41) Frankfurt 2011 winner
  • Geoffrey Mutai – fastest all time (2:03:02) Boston and New York 2011 winner
  • Moses Mosop – second fastest all time (2:03:06) Chicago 2011 winner
  • Emanuel Mutai – (2:04:40) London 2011 Winner
  • Abel Kirui – (2:05:04) 2009 and 2011 World Champion

Between them, these men had won all six Major Marathons in 2011, and posted five of the top 10 all-time performances. Any one of them has the potential to win the Olympic marathon, so how do you choose which to send? The Kenyan selectors decided to let the spring 2012 round of marathons decide, all six would be running in Boston, London or Rotterdam. Makau and Geoffrey Mutai dropped out of London and Boston respectively, perhaps under the impression that the deal was already sealed. Kipsang won London in style, while Kirui finished 6th, beating Emanuel Mutai into 7th. Mosop finished third behind two Ethiopians in Rotterdam.

Both Mutais and Makau paid dearly for their bad races, with none of them making the team – something that was almost unthinkable after their strong performances in 2011. To make matters worse (from their point of view), they will be ineligible to compete in the Kenyan Olympic 10000m trials as they haven’t posted times for that distance this year, due to focusing on the marathon. All they can do is start thinking about their autumn marathons, hoping that missing the Olympics will allow them to prepare better.

Ethiopia rises to the occasion…

2012 was undeniably Kenya’s in terms of marathon running, but so far 2012 has belonged to the Ethiopians.  With stellar finishes in Dubai and Rotterdam, Ethiopians occupy 6 of the top 10 times run so far this year. They selected Dubai’s winner, Ayele Abshero, and runner up Dino Sefir. Rotterdam’s winner, Yemane Tsegay, was passed-up in favour of 2nd place man Getu Feleke as having run in Dubai as well, he might struggle to be fit to run a third marathon this year.

This means that two big Ethiopian names are missing: Haile Gebrselassie and Tsegay Kebede. Although he has dominated marathon running for the last decade, Gebrselassie has struggled with injury since 2010, and announced he would not run the Olympic marathon after running 2:08 for 4th in Tokyo. he will instead aim to run the Olympic 10000 metres for the fifth time! Kebede is arguably the most consistent marathon runner of recent times, finishing in the top three of his last 10 marathons, all major races.  However, his time in London was two minutes slower than his compatriots in Dubai.

Speed or experience? (a.k.a the Wanjiru effect)

It’s clear that the Kenyan  and Ethiopian selectors are holding nothing sacred, choosing runners with fast, recent times over established, experienced names. The reason for this can be found in the 2008 Olympic race in Beijing, won by the little known Kenyan Samuel Wanjiru. Sammy came from nowhere and went on to dominate marathon running until his untimely death last year. He changed the way marathons are run, going fast from the gun, surging until no one could stay with him, but he also changed the way marathon teams are selected – because everyone wants to find the next Wanjiru.

Not everyone agrees with this “beauty before age” policy. In an interview with Runner’s World, American Olympic Trials Marathon winner Shalane Flanagan said it might improve her medal hopes if other countries leave experienced runners at home. Last year’s New York and Rome marathon winner Ethiopian Firehiwot Dado, has been passed up on in favour of rookies who ran fast times in Dubai.  Flanagan had this to say said: “I don’t think the favorites necessary fare well, and especially people who’ve just ripped out fast times. I don’t think that means anything. I get excited about the fact that this course is going to be hard and it’s going to be really challenging. Yeah, the people who’ve won multiple times and have the experience of just racing, that to me is more dangerous than someone who’s just run fast.”

Whilst the men’s race in Beijing was won by Wanjiru’s youthful audacity, the women’s race was won by one of the most experienced women in the game, Romania’s Constantina Dita. At the age of 38, running in her 10th marathon, she coolly took the lead early and held on to it. Paula Radcliffe will be hoping to emulate her success, now at that same age. The most experienced men in the field will be America’s Meb Keflezighi, and Morrocco’s Jaouad Gharib. Each of them has an Olympic Silver medal and a decade of world class marathon running experience, having run more than 30 marathons between them.

Who’s your money on?

A month ago I would have put my money on Geoffrey Mutai, yet he’s not even in the race. It seems like while the Kenyans were running there asses off winning everything and setting records in 2011, the Ethiopians were quietly training away to peak for the Olympic year.  Abshero’s performance in Dubai was stunning, but could he turn out to be a one-hit wonder? Maybe he left his best legs on the streets of Dubai? On the Kenyan side, Wilson Kipsang ran super fast in Frankfurt last year, and trounced a world class field in London, so he should be a factor in the race. The women’s race may be more open, but the Kenyan selection of Edna Kiplagat and Mary Keitany is impossible to argue with, as they’ve both performed well in 2011 and 2012.

But if the Olympic marathon has shown us something over the years, it’s that anything is possible, and the favourite rarely goes home with the gold…

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