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It's a nervy fleet

Kenyans hard to keep up with

By John Powers, Globe Staff, 4/15/2001

The field, as usual, is superb. Five runners with personal bests under 2 hours 8 minutes, including the last three champions and the Olympic gold medalist. If anything, muses David D'Alessandro, that may be a problem. The Boston Marathon may have become too good for its own good.

"Some people avoid the race because the field is too good," said the chief executive (soon to be chairman) of race sponsor John Hancock yesterday in his annual state-of-the-race assessment. "It's almost as though we've created a race that can be too intimidating."

Portugal's Antonio Pinto, who has the year's best time, opted to go back to London for next weekend's race. So did Morocco's Abdelkader El Mouaziz. No need to fight through a forest of Kenyans on a hilly course on a windy day.

"In this day and age," conceded D'Alessandro, "finishing fifth with a 2:08 is not a distinguishing mark for you."

The great thing about Boston is that the whole world knows who wins it. The problem with Boston is that nobody remembers who was second.

"We're a society that only rewards the winner," said D'Alessandro.

Ethiopia's Gezahegne Abera, who lost a photo finish last year to Kenya's Elijah Lagat, did collect a consolation prize later in the season: He won at Olympus.

But what the Boston Athletic Association and Hancock are finding, when they're assembling the men's field, is that some countries are saying "no, thanks" to an invitation to Hopkinton.

"I wish we could find a way to attract countries, like China, that have not sent their best runners," said D'Alessandro. "But if they can't win, they don't want to send them."

Except for lone warriors like Abera, South Korea's Lee Bong Ju, and Ecuador's Silvio Guerra, few top runners want to risk being roadkill in what has come to resemble the Kenyan intramural championships.

Kenyans have won the last 10 men's crowns (Italy's Gelindo Bordin was the last interloper) and grabbed seven of the top nine places last year.

"We've had countries say, `If you don't invite the Kenyans, we'll come,"' said D'Alessandro. "It's striking to me that some of them want to know who's coming first.

"Rob DeCastella [the 1986 victor] said it best: You're not a champion unless you win Boston. He said, `I can win in London, I can win in Rotterdam, but I'm not a champion unless I win here."'

Boston, in its 105th year, is still the world's oldest annual marathon and its most renowned. Last year's race was broadcast in 206 countries.

"We've kept it a world-class race," said D'Alessandro, "unlike what's happened in some of the other American marathons, where they drag in a few world-class runners and call it a race."

The BAA and Hancock say they'll sign on as many macadam gods as want to come.

"The guys you want are the ones who say, `I'm not running unless so-and-so's running,"' said D'Alessandro. "That's how Joan Benoit Samuelson was: `Can you get Grete to come? Is Ingrid coming?"'

Boston would be an easier race if the Nairobi airport were socked in by a permanent mid-April fog. It would also be easier if they leveled the Newton hills. Or let the Americans, who haven't won since 1983, start in Ashland.

"If we were to push the Kenyans out, I think the reaction would be terrible," said D'Alessandro. "This is a free and open race. It's about competition."

It would be better, he concedes, if more countries would send several contenders.

"We need to have more depth," D'Alessandro said. "A lone runner from one country has to be a real beast to win here."

The beast that devours Kenya will turn the world on its ear. Meanwhile, the race goes on as is.

This story ran on page C8 of the Boston Globe on 4/15/2001. Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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