Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea celebrates victory in Udine (Getty Images) © Copyright
Preview Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

MEN’s RACE PREVIEW - World Half Marathon, Rio 2008

Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea is the favourite to win the global road running title for the third consecutive year when the IAAF / CAIXA World Half Marathon Championships in Rio de Janeiro takes place on Sunday 12 October.

Among the 107 athletes who will oppose Tadese’s title defence this weekend, there is an exceptionally weighty Kenyan squad of talent which includes three men who have sub-60 PBs. Leading runners from other impressive delegations such as Ethiopia and Qatar will also have the individual gold medal in their sights as much as team glory. Yet do not overlook the host nation springing a surprise either.

Dos Santos' road success built on track speed 

When, on 5 November 2006, the then 29-year-old Brazilian Marilson dos Santos crossed the finish in 2:09:58 to win that year’s ING New York City Marathon, his own countrymen not just the distance running world were stunned by what he had achieved.

Dos Santos was feted by this country of 170 million people. A week following his triumph in recognition of his feat he was awarded the Ordem do Merito Desportivo medal, a national decoration reserved for major accomplishments in sport.

The world’s surprise at Dos Santos’ success was not shared by the athlete himself. He had a PB of 2:08:48 from finishing sixth in Chicago in 2004 (current PB, 2:08:37 8th London 2007), and having honed his speed with a successful season on the track with national records at 5000m (13:19.43 also Area Record) and 10,000m (27:48.49), was always confident that he would achieve a major race breakthrough.

Dos Santos improved his track speed further in 2007 with a 27:28.12 Area record run at 10,000m on the same track in Neerpelt, Belgium, that he had run his national record the year before. Yet this form was not reflected in his title defence in New York where he finished 8th last autumn in 2:13:47. And more frustration followed this summer when another fast clocking in Neerpelt (27:35.05) was rewarded by a ‘did not finish’ at the Beijing Olympic Games.

Yet on home soil Dos Santos, who celebrated his 31st birthday on 6 August, has the possibility to turn around his fortunes with a serious World title challenge. Seventh in the World Road Running Championships last year in Udine, Italy with a PB of 59:33, this ‘Boy from Brazil’ has all the talent and motivation to upset the hopes of the more fancied east Africans.

Considering Dos Santos has a season’s best at the half marathon of ‘only’ 62:57 (1st Santo Andre, Brazil, 13 April), its quite possible his title credentials have slipped under the radar of the Eritrean, Ethiopian and Kenyan team camps. If so, and Dos Santos’ form manages to match his talent and aspirations then the 16,000 runners in the mass race who will follow their countryman along the course on Sunday, will have more than their personal endeavours to celebrate, and Rio the celebrated city of ‘Carnaval’ will break into a party.

Tadese possible marathon bid in 2009

Tadese, the defending champion, in all but name, considering that the World Road Running Championships of the last two years has reverted back to the title of the ‘World Half Marathon’, has not raced since finishing a disappointing fifth in the Beijing Olympics 10,000m on 17 August.

The 26-year-old has focussed on Rio as his remaining peak for 2008, and none who remember his 58:59 win in Udine last year will doubt that the Eritrean can rescue a relatively below-par year with another World title. Tadese is keen to try out the full marathon distance for the first time next year and a second successful defence of this global crown, which he first won over 20km in 2006, will be a major stepping stone psychologically to that possible debut next spring.

Finishing just three seconds behind Tadese in Udine was Kenya’s Patrick Makau Musyoki. The 2007 silver medallist might not have the international recognition of the World champion but Makau thanks to his 58:56 victory in the Berlin Half Marathon last year is the third quickest runner of all-time (on courses that meet World record standards), one position ahead of Tadese.

With five major wins at the half marathon distance in 2008, including most recently a 59:29 victory in Rotterdam on 14 September, Makau could very well break Kenya’s individual gold medal drought in this competition. The last time one of their athletes occupied the top step of the podium was in 2004 (Paul Kirui).

Olympic marathon fourth placer Deriba Merga of Ethiopia also finished in that position in Udine last year. He was far adrift from Tadese with a PB finish of 59:16, but after posting a 2:06:38 PB in London at the full marathon this spring his credentials for a title challenge are beyond doubt.

Strength in depth

Should the bids of Merga and / or Makau falter their countries can still count on several 60 minute runners, Ethiopia’s Abebe Dinkesa (60:03), Eshetu Wondimu (60:01) and Raji Assefa (60:07), and Kenya’s Stephen Kibiwott (59:44), Joseph Maregu (59:45) and Mekubo Mogusu (59:48).

The other men in the sub-hour category are Rwanda’s Dieudonné Disi who sped to a PB of 59:32 for sixth place in Udine last year, and Dickson Marwa Mkami of Tanzania, who was third in Ras Al Khaimah in February in 59:52 behind Makau’s 59:35 victory.

And of course any of Tadese’s teammates should not to be overlooked in the individual fight as Eritrea strives to go one place better than its silver medal team finishes of the last three years. Finally, while Qatar’s Abdullah Ahmad Hassan has a PB of ‘only’ 61:46, his World Half Marathon bronze in 2004 means he’s also in the frame as challenger.

Chris Turner for the IAAF