FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
When Raymond Bett won the Athens Classic Marathon last year in 2.12.40,
knocking two seconds off the event record on one of the toughest courses in
the world, he was presented with the fact that Stefano Baldini won the 2004
Olympic title on the same course in 2.10.55. "I can do that," said Bett.
Back to defend his title on Sunday, Bett reiterated that estimation today,
It's not wise to underestimate a Kenyan marathoner; as many did two weeks
ago when Wilson Kipsang said he could get close to colleague Patrick
Makau's world record of 2.03.38, in Frankfurt. Kipsang missed the mark by
There are a number of factors in Bett's favour this year, not the least the
weather. Baldini won the Olympic title in Athenian mid-summer, whereas
Sunday morning promises 12-13C (mid-50sF), but with a wind off the Aegean
Sea, that's to say, at the runners' backs for much of the route from
Marathon to Athens.
Nevertheless, the field has one of the hardest marathon courses to contend
with. The first 10k is relatively flat, including the diversion around the
burial ground of the Athenian soldiers killed in the Battle of Marathon.
But then the course rises for the next 20 kilometres before a gradual
decline to the finish in the Panathenaiko, the spectacular marble stadium
built for the 1896 Olympics.
"All I was told before last year's race," said Bett, "was that it was hard.
But I was shocked. But I took it easy, and stayed at the back of the group
until 39k. So I have the advantage of knowing the course, and I also have
two pacemakers from my group who are in good form, so they will help me".
The men in question are marathon debutants, Gilbert Maina and Allan Ndiwa,
the latter having an impressive 60.45 half-marathon to his credit. They are
due to accompany Bett up to 30k, ie the top of the hills outside Athens,
and if they feel good intend to continue. "If they do, that will be an
extra advantage," said the confident Bett, ignoring the occasional
phenomenon of a pacemaker winning the race.
Bett also has some interesting insights on the recent surge in the already
burgeoning Kenyan domination of the world marathon scene. He himself is
representative of the typical Kenyan athlete, who sees running as a way out
of (relative) poverty. "I'd left school, and was looking for a job, but
really there is no work, or very little, so I was just hanging around".
Fortunately for him, he was hanging around in Iten, a town in the western
highlands of Kenya, whose 10,000 population comprises, he reckons, "about
2000 runners. One of the coaches knew I'd been a good runner in school, so
he said, why don't you start training? It's the same with many others,
there are not many jobs, so everyone wants to run; it becomes our career".
Bett only began running seriously in 2007, and immediately became one of
those hundreds if not thousands of young Kenyan runners who don't even
consider the overcrowded world of track racing, and have gone straight to
the marathon. As for the latest surge, which has propelled two dozen
Kenyans to the top of the world lists this year alone – between 2.03.38 and
2.06.31, the latter would have been second only to world record as recently
as the turn of the century – Bett thinks that the introduction of the
gymnasium into Kenyan social life has been crucial. "There were never gyms
before two years ago, now we all go to the gym to do strength work. It's
made a big difference".
Nevertheless, according to elite race director, Raschid Ben Meziane, this
might be one marathon that a Kenyan does not win. He favours his
compatriot, Abdelkrim Boubker of Morocco. "He's had three races in Europe
this year, and he's won them all. He only did 2.14.40 in Leiden (marathon),
but he was running by himself, and he won the Dordrecht half-marathon, and
a tough 30k as well".
The marathon itself continues to be a rare success in an otherwise gloomy
economic scene for Athens and Greece. Prior to last year's 2500th
anniversary of the Battle of Marathon, participants had risen to 4,500 in
number, and last year's celebration saw that shoot up to 12,500. But an
accredited 8,500 for Sunday's event is still seen as a huge success, in
view of the recent civil disturbances related to the economic crisis. The
numbers have convinced the organisers that the Greek public has finally
switched on to their marathon heritage.
That is also underlined by recent affiliations. Firstly, the marathon has a
new sponsor, OPAP, the national lottery, which has signed a contract for
six years. The Greek federation, SEGAS, which organises the race, has
recently signed an accord with UNESCO, which recognises the cultural
heritage of the event; and proceeds from the marathon will go to
educational programmes in Africa.
Outside the race itself, there is the now perennial Marathon Symposium,
which includes the ceremonial lighting of the Marathon Flame (at the
tumulus, the burial ground) at Marathon itself; the symposium concentrates
this year on medical back-up for a mass event. In addition, with backing
from SEGAS and the city government, the Association of International
Marathons, AIMS opened a permanent office in Athens on Thursday.