Eliud Kipchoge wins the men's marathon at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (© Getty Images)
Eliud Kipchoge confirmed his status as the most commanding marathon runner of the current generation when he produced a superb run over the final 15 kilometres to fulfil his status as many people’s favourite for the gold medal by winning in 2:08:44.
The statistics about Kipchoge in the context of this race can be just reeled off.
He had the biggest Olympic winning margin since Frank Shorter won in 1972; he has now won seven of his eight marathons since his debut at the 2013 Hamburg Marathon, all of them high class races; he added Olympic gold to his 5000m title at the 2003 World Championships as an 18-year-old, a 13-year-gap between his global titles, current bookends of a long and illustrious career that is far from over.
However, perhaps the most telling one about his Rio run that gives a quick demonstration of how he won the race is that he ran the second half of the race more than three minutes faster than the first, 1:05:55 and 1:02:49, a negative split no other runner could match by a long way.
"It was a championship and it was a bit slow so I decided to take over," said a thrilled Kipchoge. "Maybe it was the rain, maybe not. Everyone wants a medal. I was coming here for gold. This is history, the first time the women and the men win (from the same nation at the same Olympics) and it is the best moment of my life."
The opening half of the race was conducted with the rain falling; most of the Kenyan and Ethiopian runners unusually, for them, wearing hats to keep the precipitation out of their eyes.
The opening 5km after the gun went in Sambodromo was in a relaxed 15:31.
The 10km checkpoint was passed in 31:08 with world champion Ghirmay Ghebreslassie from Eritrea at the front of a big leading group. There were still more than 60 runners – and all the expected main contenders – within 10 seconds of the lead at this point.
Pre-race favourite and London Marathon winner Kipchoge started to show at the front regularly during the next five kilometres and 15km was passed in 46:53.
Easy first half
Very little of substance happened during the next five kilometres as the pace remained steady and on for a finish about 2:11:00 – with the expectation that there was going to be a negative split at this pace – with 20km passed in 1:02:77 and 48 men still spread within 10 seconds from the lead.
The halfway point was reached in 1:05:55 and 25km in 1:18:12 with 37 men still within 10 seconds of the lead at this point.
Shortly afterwards, one of the expected medal contenders, Ethiopia’s 2016 Dubai Marathon winner Tesfaye Abera, stepped to the side of the road and retired.
At about 27 kilometres, the Kenyan trio of Kipchoge, Wesley Korir and Stanley Biwott – who had been working together and clearly communicating during the race up to this point – started to surge and the leading pack quickly slimmed down to nine over the next two kilometres with 30km passed in 1:33:15.
Kipchoge made his decisive move and started to crank up the pace. By 32km, the leading group was down to four: Kipchoge, Ethiopian pair Feyisa Lelisa and Lemi Berhanu as well as USA’s Galen Rupp, who had only run one marathon before today at the US Olympic Trials in February and who finished fifth in the 10,000m eight days ago.
Berhanu started to fall back just before 34km but the other three, with Kipchoge dictating the tempo, stayed together through 35km in 1:47:40.
Rup was the next to fall back shortly after this checkpoint. A little further down the road, a small but significant incident occurred.
Just before 36km, Kipchoge motioned Lelisa to take up some of the running but must have seen that although the Ethiopian was on his shoulder, he was having to work hard to stay with him.
It’s impossible to say for sure what went through Kipchoge’s mind, but within 100 metres or so he surged again, clearly recognising that this was the moment when he could make his bid for glory.
Kipchoge makes decisive move
A gap soon appeared between the leading pair and with Kipchoge’s track record, the gold seemed to be as good as his as Lelisa and Rupp were faced with the challenge of hanging on to take their place alongside him on the podium.
Kipchoge passed 40km in 2:02:24 with Lelisa 36 seconds back and Rupp another 12 seconds in arrears
The gap continued to grow in the final two kilometres.
Somewhat unnecessarily, with the line in sight, Kipchoge started to look around in the last 400 metres of the race but he would not have seen Lelisa or anyone else as they had still not gone around the final bend.
His uncertainty assuaged, in the final 200 metres he put on a spurt for the line before easing up and giving the thumbs up to the crowds in the stands in the Sambodromo, getting the greatest athletics triumph of his life in the slowest marathon time of his career.
Lelisa trudged tiredly home 1:10 behind Kipchoge, crossing the line in 2:09:54, but still had enough in the tank to hold off Rupp by 11 seconds.
Rupp was unable to close the gap but got his bronze medal in a personal best of 2:10:05 while Ghebreslasssie finished fourth in 2:11:04.
Among the record 140 finishers, 2012 Olympic champion and 2013 world champion Stephen Kiprotich was 14th.
Phil Minshull for the IAAF