In the long run, there is nothing like a long run to open and close an Olympics. Ever since a Greek died running an errand thousands of years ago, thereby becoming an inspiration to joggers everywhere, and ever since another Greek, Spiridon Louis, won the original Olympic marathon in 1896, long runs have provided starts and finishes for the Games, including the delivery of the torch to the opening ceremony.
The women’s marathon, won by Rose Mota of Portugal, got the track and field portion of the Games on their way 2 weeks ago, and the men hit the pavement Sunday, to settle one final medal. The winner: Gelindo Bordin of Italy.
Bordin, a 29-year-old surveyor who placed fourth in this year’s Boston Marathon, was the surprise winner in 2 hours 10 minutes 32 seconds.
With little more than 2 miles to go, a race that was punishing at the start took its toll. A five-man pack which included Ahmed Saleh of Djibouiti, Juma Ikangaa of Tanzania, Takeyuki Nakayama of Japan, Bordin and Douglas Wakiihuri of Kenya.
That became a threesome, minus Ikangaa and Nakayama. Those three men sprinted to what was one of the closest finishes in the men’s Olympic marathon.
Saleh was passed by Bordin, who had patiently allowed others to do the work at the front. Saleh glanced back several times as the Italian bore down on him. Bordin barely glanced at Saleh as he cruised past.
Saleh was eventually passed by Wakiihuri, who won the silver in 2:10:47. Saleh won the bronze in 2:10:57. It was the first medal won by an athlete from Djibouiti.
The fastest American was Peter Pfitzinger, 14th place, in 2:14.44.
Bordin was an animated leader as he entered the packed Olympic Stadium. He casually looked around, waving and laughing. After he crossed the finish line, he knelt to the track and kissed it.
Although he made it look relatively easy, Bordin said later, “The last 5K was like a war.”
The hot, humid weather was the source of the war-like conditions. As the pack started on a blistering pace, it was clear that this would be a race of attrition: who could withstand both the early speed of this race, go the distance and bear the weather.
Unlike the women, who had the advantage of running in the cool of the early morning, the men were scheduled for the afternoon to accommodate television coverage.
No fewer than 14 runners remained bunched, with the lead often changing hands, throughout the first half of the 26.2-mile race.
Out front were the Kenyans, who were attempting to make a clean sweep of the men’s distance events, just as African athletes did at last year’s world championships at Rome. Already at these Olympics, Kenyan runners had won the 800, 1,500 and 5,000 runs and the 3,000-meter steeplechase. The 10,000 was won by another African, a Moroccan.
Among the early players was Kenya’s Ibrahim Hussein, 30, this year’s Boston Marathon champion and last year’s New York winner, who once was an economics student at the University of New Mexico. Wakiihuri, 26, was there. He won the marathon at last year’s world championships. Wakiihuri was born in Mombasa but lives and trains and Japan. Kenya’s athletes cover a lot of ground in their run to be the best.
And then there was Ikangaa, 31, sixth in the 1984 Olympics, who spent as much time in the lead Sunday as anybody. The first African ever to break 2:10, Ikangaa was the leader at the halfway point, and was setting a fast pace.
Another African, Belayneh Dinsamo, certainly would have been one of the favorites in the Olympic marathon, if only he had been in it. Ethiopia, alas, boycotted these Games. Dinsamo ran a world record 2:06.50 this year at Rotterdam.
African runners, who tend to be light of feet, do not seem to be affected by rock-hard surfaces as much as North American and European runners are. Through the first 21 kilometers (about 13 miles) of Sunday’s run, however, the leaders of the pack as the runners arrived at the Mapo Bridge across the Han River included Martin Mondragon of Mexico, the 1988 L.A. Marathon champion, and the silver and bronze medalists of the 1984 Olympics, John Treacy of Ireland and Charlie Spedding of Great Britain.
Although there were thousands of spectators lining the course, there were also 36,000 police and security personnel between the runners and the crowd.
The course was painfully hard, but Spedding was more concerned going into the race with the weather, which was 74 degrees at the start, and above 80 as the race progressed.
“For a fair-haired man from the north of England, the weather will be the toughest problem, not the course,” Spedding said.
Nearing the 30-kilometer mark, the pack finally was strung out a bit, with Ikangaa leading. On his heels was Bordin. He moved into first place as soon as the field reached the 30-K mark, a little more than a half-hour from the finish line inside the Olympic Stadium.
Ikangaa passed him almost immediately, whereupon Japanese champion Nakayama, 28, who has won marathons in Seoul twice before, shot past both of them. Coming right with him was Saleh, the 32-year-old Army officer.
At about 22 miles, Nakayama, Saleh, Bordin and Wakiihuri made a break, leaving Spedding and Ikangaa behind.
Bordin, with the victory, became the first Italian to win an Olympic marathon--with an asterisk. In 1908, Dorando Pietri of Italy was leading within a few yards of the finish line. He collapsed, and officials helped him finish. Because of the assistance, he was disqualified.
Bordin needed no assistance.
Wakiihuri is an interesting story. He moved to Tokyo in 1983, seeking “running philosophy.” There, he trained with the late marathon guru Kiyoshi Nakamura, who molded Japan’s first great marathoner, Toshihiko Seko, who was among the early leaders.
Under Nakmura’s tutelage, Wakiihuri learned the Japanese language and the unique Japanese approach to running. “I am an African,” he said. “But when I run, I have to run like a Japanese.”
On this day, it was best to run like an Italian.