Marathon Men: The dynamic dozen


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It was relatively easy to pick the top 10 women’s marathoners of all time.

After all, elite women’s marathoning is barely three decades old, a period when the women’s race was added to the program in all major global and regional championships, and top-flight invitational marathons took root in places such as New York, Chicago, London, Osaka and more.


That means you essentially are judging apples against apples.

Men’s marathoning has been around for more than a century, with several distinct eras. Before World War II, there really were only four marathons of lasting consequence: the Olympics, the European Championships, the Commonwealth Games and Boston.

And the great African runners did not begin to have a massive impact on marathoning until the mid-1980s, even if a few had become champions before then. That makes it much harder to compare. But I will use a rule I think applies to all sports comparisons: dominance of an era is a measuring stick for greatness.

And, as I wrote while ranking the women, victories in major championships, not invitationals, weigh more heavily. So here goes, with the dozen most renowned men’s marathoners:

1. Abebe Bikila, Ethiopia. The only no-brainer choice. By winning at Rome in 1960 and Tokyo in 1964, he began the African era in distance running. He set world records in both victories -– the only man since 1920 to set a world marathon record in an Olympics. Bikila won 14 of 15 marathons.

2. Frank Shorter, United States. Won Olympic gold and silver medals. His gold in 1972, when an imposter preceded him onto the track for the finish, attracted such attention it helped spur the jogging boom in the United States. Four-time winner of the prestigious Fukuoka Marathon.

3. Samuel Wanjiru, Kenya. History will tell if I have overrated Wanjiru, but he won the 2008 Olympics in a race may have redefined men’s championship marathoning tactically. Despite temperatures between 75 and 80 degrees for the final three-fourths of the race, the pace was fast from start to finish, and Wanjiru’s winning time of 2:06:32 took nearly three minutes off the 24-year-old Olympic record. It was the first time under 2:08 in any championship marathon. At 21, he is the youngest marathon gold medalist ever. Also won Fukuoka in record time for the 61-year-old race.

4. Mamo Wolde, Ethiopia. Wolde won the 1968 Olympic marathon and, at age 40, won a bronze medal four years later. He also won the first marathon at the All-Africa Games in 1973.

5. Bill Rodgers, United States: ‘Boston Billy,’ the waif from Wesleyan, helped popularize the sport with his relentless goodwill and unassuming nature as he won the Boston and New York Marathons four times each from 1975 from 1980, twice setting U.S. records at Boston. The 1980 U.S. Olympic boycott killed his best chance for a medal in the Games (he was 40th in 1976). Won Fukuoka. Ranked world No. 1 three seasons.

6. Haile Gebrselassie, Ethiopia. Gebrselassie is the greatest distance runner ever and has set two marathon world records, the latest (2:03:59) a month ago in Berlin. But all his marathon victories except one at Fukuoka have come in races that were essentially time trials. He was third and ninth against strong fields in London, and he chickened out of the marathon at the 2008 Olympics, fearing heat and pollution.

7. Clarence DeMar, United States. Won seven Boston Marathons from 1911 through 1930, setting course records in all but the last, when he was 41 years old. Ran infrequently from 1912 through 1922 because of college and military service. Bronze medal at 1924 Olympics.

8. Waldemar Cierpinski, East Germany. The 1976 and 1980 Olympic marathon champion. Bronze medalist at the 1983 worlds. Since his name was found in secret police doping files after the Berlin Wall fell, it is likely Cierpinski was among the many beneficiaries of his country’s state-sponsored doping program. What is unknown is how many other marathoners worldwide also were doping in an era when it was ridiculously easy to beat testing.

9. Gezahegne Abera, Ethiopia: Olympic champion in 2000 and world champion in 2001. (Only man to win both). Three-time Fukuoka winner. London winner.

10. Stefano Baldini, Italy: Olympic champion (2004) and two European Championship golds. Two World Championship bronzes. Two second places at London.

11. Toshihiko Seko, Japan: Four victories at Fukuoka, two in Boston, one each in Chicago and London, making him the only man to win all four races. Less successful at Olympics, with a ninth and 14th.

12. Pheidippides, Greece. His run over the approximately 24 miles from Marathon to Athens with news of a Greek victory in 490 B.C. was not an unusual jaunt for Greeks of his era, when couriers often ran for days. When the modern Olympics began in Athens in 1896, the inclusion of a race along the approximate route Pheidippides is believed to have run created the mythos of the marathon -- as did the sad fact that he dropped dead after finishing.

-- Philip Hersh

Top photo: Samuel Wanjiru won the men’s marathon at the 2008 Beijing Games. Credit: Kirby Lee / Image of Sport / US PRESSWIRE