Sunday, July 22, 2012

Great Olympic Streaks: African Distance Runners

Today's posting, the second on track and field and the fifth overall of the series, examines the domination of distance races by runners from African countries. Because women's long-distance races are relatively new to the Olympics, this posting will focus primarily on men's events.

Back in February of this year, in anticipation of the London Games, New African magazine published a history of African (and African-American) performance in the Olympics. According to the article, "Africa first hit the world’s Olympic Games headlines with the marathon triumph of Abebe Bikila at Rome in 1960. He became an overnight hero everywhere the Games were followed because he ran the very long race bare-footed..." The article also noted that the Ethiopian Bikila "crossed the finish line in the record time of 2:15:16.2 to become the first sub-Saharan African to win an Olympic Games gold medal."

Bikila successfully defended his gold medal in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, but had to drop out of the 1968 Olympic marathon in Mexico City midway through, due to a knee injury. Ethiopia held onto the marathon gold for the third straight time, however, as Mamo Wolde finished first.

From there, as they say, the rest is history. I have created the following chart (on which you can click to enlarge) to show which countries have won gold medals in the Olympic distance races (which I define as the 3,000-meter steeplechase [and previous flat 3,000 for women]; 5,000 meters; 10,000 meters; and marathon) from 1960-2008. As noted in the chart, there was an African nations' boycott of the 1976 Olympics. All-time results are available from a website called Database Olympics.

Clearly, the triumphs of Bikila and Wolde seemed to pave the way for future Ethiopian champion male runners, namely Miruts Yifter (1980 double gold medalist at 5,000 and 10,000 meters), Haile Gebrselassie (1996 and 2000 gold medalist in the 10,000), and Kenenisa Bekele (2004 and '08 10,000 gold medalist, and also '08 winner in the 5,000). There have also been a number of excellent Ethiopian female runners, including Derartu Tulu (10,000 gold medalist in 1992 and 2000) and Tirunesh Dibaba (2008 gold medalist at 5,000 and 10,000).

According to the aforementioned New African article, "The Kenyans hit the forefront in force at Mexico City in 1968." In terms of specific athletes, "Kipchoge Keino... represented the face of East African athletics... At Mexico City the Kenyan won the 1,500 metres with a resounding victory over world record-holder Jim Ryun and also took silver in the 5,000 metres. Four years later he won the 3,000 metres steeplechase and was second in the 1,500 metres."

The steeplechase, in which runners must clear hurdle-type barriers and a water-jump on each lap, has become something of an impenetrable Kenyan stronghold. From 1984-2008, Kenya has won every gold medal in this event and (as noted by asterisks in the above chart) swept gold, silver, and bronze in 1992 and 2004. Interestingly, seven different individuals have brought home the gold for Kenya during the streak, making it a national streak, as opposed to that of an individual athlete.

What are Kenya's chances for winning the men's steeplechase an eighth straight time? Pretty good. Looking at Track and Field News's form charts (predictions), in the most recently issued men's forecasts (July 7), Kenya is picked for gold, silver, and bronze in the steeplechase.

All in all, from 1968-2008 (excluding the boycott year of 1976), African nations have won 29 of 40 possible men’s gold medals in the four distance events. In more recent years, the African men's dominance has been even more pronounced, as from 1996-2008, African countries have taken 15 of 16 possible golds.

In women's competition, Ethiopia has won 6 gold medals in the 5,000 (2); 10,000 (3); and marathon (1).

Prior to Abebe Bikila putting African distance running on the map in 1960, of course, there were many illustrious distance runners from other parts of the world, who warrant mention.

Finland's Paavo Nurmi captured 9 gold medals from 1920-1928 (although these include individual and team cross-country, which is no longer contested at the Olympics). Emil Zatopek, a Czech runner, had a gold-medal trifecta in 1952, winning the 5,000; 10,000; and marathon. He also won a 10,000-meter gold in 1948. Finally, another Finnish runner, Lasse Viren, pulled off a gold-medal "double-double," winning the 5,000 and 10,000 in 1972 and doing the same in '76.

No comments: