Will Kenya's marathon squad dethrone defending champs in Budapest?

A team of marathoners selected to represent the country in World Championship from left,Titus Kipruto, Shyline Jepkorir, Micahael Githae, Rosemary Wanjiru, Joshua Belet, Margaret Wangare, Timothy Rono, Betty Chepkwony, Sally Chebiego and BethweL Chumba, pose for a photograph in Eldoret yesterday. June 14, 2023. [Peter Ochieng, Standard]

Since 2017, Kenyan men have not brought home a gold medal from the World Championships.

2017 was the year Geoffrey Kirui fashionably outwitted Tamirat Tola of Ethiopia to clinch victory.

Before 2017, there was a gold medal dry spell in the men's marathon in the 2013 Moscow and 2015 Beijing editions - a period where Ugandan Stephen Kiprotich and Eritrean Ghirmay Ghebreslassie respectively ran away with the prestigious titles.

No Kenyan man made it to the podium during the dry spell episode.

The period between 2007 and 2011 was the period Kenyan men displayed unmatched dominance in the World Championships marathon, with Luke Kibet triumphing in Osaka (2017) and Abel Kirui's back-to-back gold in 2009 Berlin and 2011 Daegu capping the successful moment.

On the other hand, the country's women struck gold in 2019 when Ruth Chepngetich defeated Rose Chelimo of Bahrain and Namibia's Helalia Johannes to win in Doha.

Ednah Kiplagat saved the country's blushes with her 2013 gold medal although she was lonely on the podium.

Helah Kiprop gave the country silver, the only medal during that year's showpiece in 2015, a year that no male marathoner made it to the top three.

When marathon stars assemble next month for top honours at the magnificent course for the 2023 Budapest World 42Km contest, Kenyan bigshots will be undertaking one of the toughest assignments in a global championship - dislodging the reigning champions and winning medals.

Last year, Tamirat Tola led his Ethiopian countryman Mosinet Geremew in a 1-2 finish in the 2022 Eugene World Championships while Gotytom Gebreslase won gold for the Kenyan rivals in the women's category.

Despite mixed results at the World Marathon, Kenya remains the country with the highest number of medals in the 42km distance with 19 cumulative awards since 1987 when Douglas Wakiihuri won gold in Rome.

Women have produced 10 medals in total and the men's counterparts have nine, and both top the all-time World Championships marathon medal standings.

The country's bigshots were conspicuously missing as Athletics Kenya (AK) named the marathon squad tasked with representing the nation in Budapest.

Kenya's Geoffrey Kipkorir Kirui (L) and Ethiopia's Tamirat Tola compete in the men's marathon athletics event at the 2017 IAAF World Championships in central London on August 6, 2017.[AFP]

A tentative list released on June 2 comprised the world's second fastest marathoner Kelvin Kiptum (the reigning London 42km Champion) and double New York City Marathon champion Geoffrey Kamworor - names which were missing in the final list unveiled in Eldoret.

Commonwealth 10,000m bronze medallist Sheila Chepkirui and the women's marathon world record holder Brigid Kosgei were also on the tentative list.

The Kenyan marathon team selected on June 14 is likely to face last year's champions Ethiopia's Tola and Gotytom, who are among a team of 12 marathoners picked last month. The best six, three from each category are set to be picked to represent Ethiopia in Budapest, Hungary.

Rosemary Wanjiru, the reigning Tokyo Marathon champion and Timothy Ronoh - the runner-up at the NN Rotterdam Marathon in April this year will be leading the Kenyan assault in next month's showdown.

Apart from Ronoh, the men's team comprises Milano Marathon 2022 winner, Titus Kipruto and Joshua Belet, a Hamburg Marathon runner-up. Michael Githae and Bethwell Kibet are on the reserve team.

"Expect good results from the marathon team. We are preparing well for the assignment and we ask Kenyans to continue supporting and encouraging us as we prepare for the World Championships marathon," Kipruto, who is the men's marathon squad captain says.

The women's marathon team also includes Selly Chepyego Kaptich and Shyline Jepkorir while Margaret Wangari and Betty Chepkwony were named as reserves.

Chepyego's breakthrough in athletics came at the 2001 World Youth Championships where racing barefoot, she held off Ethiopia's Mestewat Tufa to win the gold medal in the 3000m.

On her assurance to an expectant country, Chepyego says: "I want to assure the country that this is the best team and we are going to do the best to win the medals. We can't afford to disappoint Kenya."

AK vice president and director of competitions Paul Mutwii said during the unveiling of the marathon team: "If our top athletes chose other races instead of representing the country, it is not a good thing. Our athletes should sacrifice for the sake of the country. We are glad because the newly selected team has agreed to fly our country's flag in Budapest."

When Kenya was naming its marathon squad, neighbouring Ethiopia was also doing the same.

Following their world rankings and personal bests last year, the Ethiopian Athletics Federation (EAF) selected 12 marathon competitors (six men and six women) to compete in the 2023 World Athletics Championships in Budapest, the athletics body reported.

According to the EAF reigning world champions Tamirat Tola and Gotytom Gebreslase, who won the gold medal in the marathon at the 2022 World Athletics Championships in Oregon, are leaders in the Ethiopian marathon squad.

Others in the star-studded Ethiopian squad are Amsterdam Marathon champion Tsegaye Getachew, 2021 Chicago Marathon winner Seifu Tura, Leul Gebresillassie who placed second at last year's London Marathon, Chalu Deso and Amhed Essa, who will represent the neighbouring nation in the men's marathon.

Kenya's Ruth Chepngetich competes in the Women's Marathon at the 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championships in Doha on September 27, 2019.[AFP]

The Ethiopian women's marathon team comprises London Marathon winner (2022) Yalemzerf Yehualaw, Megertu Alemu, who finished second in London 42km in April this year, reigning Prague Marathon champion Worknish Edessa, Tsehaye Gemechu, and Amane Beriso.

"The marathon team will train for two months and after the training, a selection of the top three athletes will be done. The health condition of the athletes and performance will be the yardsticks to determine the final selections," a technical director at the Ethiopian federation Asfaw Dagne told the media mid-last month after the selection of the 12 long-distance athletes.

Uganda is also sending a strong squad. Andrew Kwemoi, the winner of Milano marathon in April, Haspa marathon runner-up in 2:04:48 Stephen Kissa and the reigning Commonwealth Champion Victor Kiplangat will be teaming up in Uganda's battle for glory in Budapest. They are in the men's team.

The neighbouring country will be represented by former Commonwealth bronze medallist Mercyline Chelangat, 2022 Padova Marathon winner Rebecca Cheptegei and Doreen Chesang who won bronze at the Bathurst World Cross Country championships earlier this year and will be carrying Uganda's hopes in the women's marathon.

Kenyan marathoners will also face their former compatriots who shifted allegiance to compete for other countries.

For instance, three-time World Championships team member Elkanah Kibet will lead the US men's marathon squad. He placed ninth at the Prague Marathon on May 7, where he clocked a 2:10:43.

Kenyan-born athletes such as Lonah Chemtai Salpeter as well as Bahraini stars Rose Chelimo and Eunice Kirwa have cruised to historic performances at the World Championships in recent years.

Salpeter secured a bronze for Israel in Oregon last year while Chelimo and Kirwa won silver and bronze for Bahrain in 2019 and 2017 respectively.

"We have found a really good route for marathoners. From the beginning, we considered about 30 possible options. In the end, we chose the 10km course, which will be completed by the world's best in four laps in August," competition director of the 2023 World Championships, who is also a former Hungarian marathoner Eva Petrik said.

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