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2008 Olympic Games - Beijing - Women's Marathon Contenders
by Sharon Ekstrom
Paula Radcliffe |
Catherine Ndereba |
Mizuki Noguchi |
Deena Kastor |
Zhou Chunxiu |
Gete Wami |
Berhane Adere |
Dire Tune |
Constantina Tomescu-Dita |
Paula Radcliffe (GBR), a phenom who holds the marathon world record of 2:15:25 from the 2003 London Marathon, is the only female to run sub 2:18 marathons and tops the all-time best performance list with three fastest finishes of all time. While an Olympic medal has eluded the thirty-four year old Radcliffe, she remains haunted by the 2004 Athens Games. In the marathon Radcliffe lead for most of the race; but unexpectedly pulled to the side of the road dropping out after mile 22 emotionally breaking down into sobs. Days later she dropped out of the 10,000 meter race with eight laps to go, another disappointment to herself and Great Britain as she was a primary medal contender for the country. To Radcliffe's credit, following Athens she won every marathon she raced - 2004 New York City Marathon, 2005 London Marathon and 2005 World Championships in Helsinki - before taking 2006 off to have a baby. Radcliffe's return back to the sport of distance running nine months after childbirth to continue her streak with a victory at the 2007 New York City Marathon (2:23:09). But it has been a rocky road for Radcliffe who had her Olympic training hampered over the past year beginning with a toe tendon injury forcing her to withdraw from the 2008 London Marathon followed by hip and thigh problems and then a stress fracture to her left femur forcing Radcliffe off her feet for some time. In the past weeks many wonder if Radcliffe would be physically fit to compete. Undeterred, Radcliffe was given the green light to head to Beijing; yet the challenges continue with a spider bite to her foot in July which required emergency surgery and a category 8 typhoon that hit Macau where Team Great Britain has been stationed to acclimate to the heat and humidity of Beijing forcing Radcliffe to train indoors in this last critical week leading up to race day.
Why? Although conditions will exacerbate her asthma, she will not back down from the challenge like men's world record holder Haile Gebrselassie (who qualified for the marathon but refused to run the marathon opting for the 10,000 meter distance instead). Because Radcliffe has had an incomplete training regime and on race day may not be healthy enough to run; but she is hungry for it. Radcliffe's sheer determination to make it to the start and overcome all odds to give this race her best shot deserves respect.
Catherine Ndereba (KEN) at thirty-six years old is one of the fiercest competitors on the circuit. A four-time Boston Marathon winner, her 2001 World Record time of 2:18:47 at the Chicago Marathon went unrivaled until Radcliffe came onto the marathon scene. (Both she and Radcliffe are the only women capable of sub-2:19 marathons.) Ndereba who has the nickname "Catherine the Great", has a collection of first place and second place finishes at almost all career marathons including a silver at the 2004 Athens Games, wins of the 2003 and 2007 World Championships and a silver at the 2005 World Championships. The one exception was a fifth place finish at the 2007 New York City Marathon; but Ndereba is in peak shape following her win of the 2008 New York City Half Marathon in 70:19, using the challenging course to gauge her fitness levels for the Olympics. Ndereba is a seasoned veteran who will undoubtedly be in the lead pack.
Why? As this may be Ndereba's last Olympics, she has never had an Olympic gold medal and would like to be the first Kenyan marathoner to win gold which would help unify the country following the violence of last December's presidential elections. Humble, wise and strong with faith, Ndereba will be unstoppable, as remains Kenya's top female distance runner.
Mizuki Noguchi (JPN) who recently celebrated her thirtieth birthday is the defending champion of the 2004 Athens Games. Noguchi has much riding on her shoulders, as Japanese women have won medals in every marathon since the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Yuko Arimori took silver in Barcelona and bronze in 1996 at Atlanta, Naoko Takahashi won the 2000 gold in Sydney and Noguchi in 2004. While Noguchi may not have run as many marathons as Radcliffe and Ndereba; she has what both desire, Olympic gold. With a personal best of 2:19:12 from the 2005 Berlin Marathon, Noguchi also has earned the title of third fastest woman in the world. Yet, she faces further challenges having battled a number of injuries and health issues since Athens. Of late, Noguchi had injured a muscle in her upper left leg causing her to scale back her training for a few weeks. With weeks before race day, she left altitude training three days early citing extreme muscle fatigue and spent some time in a hospital receiving treatment. The Japanese Athletics Association states that she will be given a few more days to prove she has overcome her ailments. There are no plans to replace her spot on the team in the event she fails to start, but many remain confident that she will race.
Why? Noguchi was a relative unknown outside the Japanese marathon circuit until the Athens Games. She was incredibly strong despite the heat and humid conditions on a hilly course in Athens. For Beijing she will require speed to be a major contender in Beijing, which she is capable of as seen in Berlin in 2005. Given her fitness levels, Noguchi may be able to surpass her ailments, as well as the pressure of the impending Olympics as race day approaches.
**NOTE: On August 17, 2008 Mizuki Nocguchi will not be defending her gold medal from the Athens Games as she has officially withdrawn from the marathon at the Beijing Olympic Games. No further statement was given regarding her medical status. Noguchi had undergone a number of MRIs to determine the cause of the extreme muscle fatigue that caused her to cut her altitude training short.
Deena Kastor (USA) is undoubtedly an American favorite who has been compared in greatness to Joan Benoit Samuelsson with a number of National Records and as an inspiration to women in distance running. The fourth fastest woman in the world and at thirty-five years old, Kastor became the fourth fastest woman in the world with her 2006 London Marathon victory of 2:19:36, giving her the most recent fastest time as Ndereba haven't run a sub 2:19 since 2002 and Radcliffe and Noguchi since 2005. But Kastor will be one to watch in Beijing, as her skillful strategy in tough climate conditions proved her to be a major player in marathoning when U.S. distance running was at a low point.
Why? At the 2004 Athens Games Kastor ran her own race from the start trailing two minutes behind Radcliffe and the lead pack for much of the Olympic marathon. As she moved from eighteenth to third place following the 40K mark, Kastor's diligence paid off with a bronze medal. Kastor's medal along with fellow American Meb Keflezighi's silver medal inspired a resurgence of the American distance running scene.
Zhou Chunxiu (CHN) is China's hope for a medal in the marathon. Having debuted in the marathon distance in 2003 when veterans like Radcliffe and Ndereba had a number of marathons under their belt, Chunxiu whose personal best is a 2:19:51 from the 2006 Seoul Marathon has been mentioned by top elites for over a year as one to watch at the Olympics. Her advantages are due in part to home turf advantage and from improvements in recent performances. Chunxiu who was not a major challenger at the 2004 Athens Games became a threat in 2007 when she won the London Marathon. She followed the victory with a silver medal at the 2007 World Championships in Osaka losing to Catherine Ndereba by eight seconds.
Why? Zhou who almost quit running in 2000 due to ankle injuries came in second at the first international race she ran - the 2003 Beijing Marathon with a 2:23:41 and her times have improved since. Her training regimen of a marathon per day in altitude is almost frightening and may be what makes or breaks her on race day.
2006/2007 World Marathon Major Champion Gete Wami (ETH) exploded onto the marathon scene with a 2:22:19 victory in Amsterdam in 2002, at the time the second fastest debut in history. Wami won the 2006 Berlin Marathon in a personal best time of 2:21:34 and has continued a succession of solid top three marathon finishes since 2006. Aside from besting long time rival Paula Radcliffe on the track in twenty-six out of thirty-four events, Wami lost to Radcliffe at the 2007 New York City Marathon. To her credit, Wami had just won the 2007 Berlin Marathon five weeks earlier. She will once again meet longtime rival Radcliffe in Beijing for a rematch.
Why? Wami has been a solid, consistent runner. Having run two marathons at world class levels with only five weeks of recovery in between, Wami also managed a third place finish despite falling at a water station at the 2008 London Marathon, while many sat out of spring marathons battling injuries or in preparation for the Olympics.
Veteran distance runner Berhane Adere (ETH), whose career spans over a decade, became the ninth fastest woman in the world and Ethiopian marathon record holder with her win of the 2006 Chicago Marathon in 2:20:42. Adere's luck in Chicago continued with a second victory of the 2007 race despite the brutally hot conditions. Following the hot weather trend, she won the 2008 Dubai Marathon. And in a surprising move for an Olympic year, Adere ran the 2008 London Marathon, a race where she has never performed well, only three months after Dubai.
Why? Adere's performances have always been overshadowed by fellow Ethiopian countrywomen, Gete Wami and Derartu Tulu; but Beijing's tough conditions may level the playing field as Adere has raced hard in hot and humid conditions for over a year.
Rounding out a strong Ethiopian women's team consisting of Gete Wami and berhane Adere is one of the younger participants in the women's marathon at the Beijing Games. At twenty-three years of age, Dire Tune (ETH) began her marathon career in 2005 with a fourth place finish at the Los Angeles Marathon. Her second marathon was the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki, where the deep field and the race conditions were tough on the young runner. But Tune finally got in sync with the distance acquiring top three finishes at 2006 Country Music Marathon and 2007 Nagano Marathon and wins of the 2006 Hong Kong Marathon, 2007 Houston Marathon, 2008 Houston Marathon (a personal best in 2:24:40) and 2008 Boston Marathon. Tune followed up her Boston victory by setting a new world record weeks later at the one hour race at the IAAF Golden Spike international athletics contest in Ostrava, Czech Republic. She ran 18,517 meters beating the world record of 18,340 meters achieved by Tegla Loroupe (KEN) back in 1998.
Why? Her freshness competing against the veteran field could give her an advantage. Tune has been on an upswing and could take the 2008 Beijing Games by storm and upset the favorites to medal.
Experienced marathoner Constantina Tomescu-Dita (ROM) with more than a decade of racing marathons will certainly be a front runner in Beijing. An aggressive runner, Tomescu-Dita can always be found in the lead pack and has a resume consisting of many top ten finishes. Her struggle to compete well in world championship and Olympic marathon events ended in 2005, which was a stellar year for the Romanian. Following a second place finish at the 2005 London Marathon, she edged out top Kenyan Derartu Tulu taking a third place finish at the 2005 World Championships trailing world record holder Paula Radcliffe and former world record holder Catherine Ndereba. In peak fitness, she was second at the 2005 Chicago Marathon in a personal best of 2:21:30. Having had to withdraw from the 2007 World Championships in Osaka due to tendonitis in her right knee, Tomescu-Dita is back on track. She has already raced the Osaka Marathon and the London Marathon earlier in 2008 in preparation for Beijing.
Why? If Tomescu-Dita has the right timing, her strategy and fortitude will earn her a medal despite a field deep with talent. Tomescu-Dita has worked hard to get to these peak levels of running and at thirty-eight this may be her last shot at the Olympics.
Two time winner of the New York City Marathon, Jelena Prokopcuka (LAT) has worked hard in the past five years with top five finishes at the Chicago Marathon, Osaka Marathon (personal best of 2:22:56), New York City Marathon and Boston Marathon. Unfortunately, she was edged out of winning the 2006/2007 World Marathon Majors prize purse by Gete Wami, who shocked many with a victory of the 2007 Berlin Marathon then second place finish of the 2007 New York City Marathon a few weeks later. (Wami is once again first on the 2007/2008 World Marathon Major leader board.) Prokopcuka, unfazed by the loss, looked forward to her next race. Uncertain about the Olympic for some time, Prokopcuka who is an official entrant in the marathon at the Beijing Games has never competed in the marathon at the Olympics (or World Championships) until now.
Why? Prokopcuka has improved much and the Olympic Games would be a great world stage to see her hard work pay off. As Latvian National Record Holder, a medal would be a first in running for her country.