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Defending champions hear footsteps

With Olympics at stake, Chebet must fend off Kenyan brethren

By John Powers, Globe Staff, 4/17/2000

Is there a Heartbreak Hill in Nairobi? Maybe the Hancock folks could ship the whole men's race over there and save on the jet lag.

What we have here is the Kenyan intramural championships, masquerading as the Boston Athletic Association Marathon. Unless they miss their wake-up calls this morning, either Joseph Chebet, or Moses Tanui, or Ondoro Osoro, or one of their running mates will win the laurel wreath for the 10th straight time. No country has managed that since the US between 1916-1925, when a ''foreigner'' meant someone from Canada.

If anything, it'll be tougher than ever to crack the Kenyan hegemony this time, since they're using the 104th running as their selection race for Sydney. ''Every athlete is eyeing the Olympics,'' said the 34-year-old Tanui, who'll be chasing his third title in five years. ''So I think the race will be very difficult.''

The top two Kenyans here will earn tickets Down Under. History and form say it'll be Tanui and the 29-year-old Chebet, the defending champion. But half a dozen of their countrymen, who've all done marathons in less than 2 hours 9 minutes, also have a shot - the 32-year-old Osoro (who scratched with an injury last year), 31-year-old John Kagwe (a two-time New York champion), 23-year-old Jackson Kabiga, 25-year-old Philip Tarus, 28-year-old Julius Ruto, and 33-year-old Elijah Lagat.

Most years, they would cover the hills and flats as a pack, playing cat-and-mouse with rival soloists. Not this time. ''We normally run as a team,'' said Tanui. ''That is the Kenyan way. Then later, someone who is very strong will win. We will not run that way this year.''

That gives hope to the rest of the world - except to the Americans, whose top people are bypassing the race in favor of next month's Olympic Trials in Pittsburgh. But top contenders, such as Ecuador's Silvio Guerra (last year's runner-up), Ethiopia's Gezahenge Abera, and South Africa's Abner Chipu (fourth last year) and Makhosonke Fika, figure they may have a shot to slip through while the Kenyans are jockeying with each other.

''It is good because I have a bunch of Africans who will be pushing the race, so I don't have to worry about that,'' said the 31-year-old Guerra, who led last year's race for six miles before Chebet ran him down in Brookline. ''And they will have the pressure to qualify for the Olympics. I have already qualified, so I don't have the pressure to get on the team. I just can go for the win.''

Guerra went for the win last year, breaking out of the pack after 16 miles, and discovered the dubious pleasure of having the Kenyans nipping at his heels through the Newton hills. ''That was the race I took,'' he said. ''At some point, I thought I could win the race. I didn't, but I was very happy with second place.''

Chebet had come in second to Tanui by three seconds in 1998 after leading, and it haunted him. Last year, he broke through, and returned home a minor god. ''I was very famous,'' Chebet said. ''When I got back to Kenya, everybody wanted to see me. It changed my life drastically.''

Five Kenyans have won the Hopkinton-to-Boston pilgrimage - Ibrahim Hussein (three times), Cosmas Ndeti (three times), Tanui (twice), Chebet, and Lameck Aguta. In 1996, the last Olympic year, they swept the first five places and seven of the top eight.

The last non-Kenyan to win was Italy's Gelindo Bordin a decade ago. That's no coincidence. The Marathon may be Boston's heirloom, but it's on permanent loan to Nairobi. ''It is our tradition, like in world cross-country,'' said Tanui. ''When you win once, you want to maintain the tradition.''

This story ran on page E8 of the Boston Globe on 4/17/2000.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.

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