Eliud Kipchoge cemented his place as the greatest distance runner of all time as he retained his Olympic marathon title in brutal conditions in Sapporo. As the Kenyan crossed the line in 2:08.38, he thumped his chest and smiled. Behind him a string of top-class athletes bowed their heads in pain – and respect to the little master.
“I think I have fulfilled the legacy by winning the marathon for the second time, back to back,” he said. “I hope now to help inspire the next generation.
“This means a lot for me, especially at this time. It was really hard last year, the Olympics was postponed. I am happy for the local organising committee who made this race happen. It is a sign that shows the world we are heading in the right direction – we are on the right transition to a normal life. I can say congratulations to them that they made this Olympics happen.”
It was so hot and humid that several athletes ran holding bags of ice in their hands – at least until they suddenly pulled up at the side of the road. Of the 116 starters, 30 did not finish.
Kipchoge, though, remained impenetrably cool. At 30km, there were 10 athletes left in the remaining group. But then he dropped a 14:28 5k – in 81f heat and 73% humidity – to move of out of sight by 35km and winning gold by 80 seconds.
“I wanted to create a space to show the world that this is a beautiful race,” said Kipchoge. “I wanted to test my fitness, I wanted to test how I’m feeling. I wanted to show that we have hope in the future.
“The Olympic dream is a special dream. For every athlete here, it has taken a lifetime of preparation to get to this point. Today I lived my Olympic dream. I always say that sport is like life, whereby you can win and lose. But today was a day where I won and get to say I successfully defended my Olympic title.”
Some had questioned whether Kipchoge, who is officially 36, was on the slide after he suffered his first defeat in seven years at last year’s London marathon, citing a blocked ear. This was the loudest possible retort.
Victory also made him only the third athlete to defend an Olympic marathon title, following the bare-footed Ethopian Abebe Bikila in 1960 and 1964 and the East German Waldemar Cierpinski in 1972 and 1976.
Just for good measure, Kipchoge also holds the official world marathon record of 2:01:39 and has run a sub-two hour marathon in an unofficial race. Earlier in his career he was also a 5,000m world champion in 2003, and won Olympic bronze and silver over 5,000m and 10,000m in 2004 and 2008 respectively.
Behind Kipchoge, the Dutch athlete Abdi Nageeye took silver in 2:09:58 – although he spent the last 30m looking behind him to encourage his friend Bashir Abdi of Belgium, who just about took bronze from the Kenyan Lawrence Chorono.
Of Britain’s three runners, two – Ben Connor and Callum Hawkins – did not finish. However, the evergreen Chris Thompson finished 54th in 2:21.29 at the age of 40. Galen Rupp was the top American, finishing eighth in 2:11.41.