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  There's no US gold in Boston's hills

By John Powers, Globe Staff, 4/13/2004

Ken Pliska and Lee Di Pietro are the top domestic hopes in Monday's 108th Boston Marathon. What does that tell you? Must be an Olympic year.

The best hundred-plus American women, who had their trials in St. Louis two weekends ago, are still letting their muscles unknot and their blisters heal.

The US males had their trials in February, which means that anyone who didn't make the team for Athens (i.e. anybody who isn't Alan Culpepper, Meb Keflezighi, or Dan Browne) and is a top-level distance runner probably is getting ready for July's track trials in Sacramento.

Time was when the road to Olympus ran through Hopkinton. That's how everyone from Clarence DeMar to Tarzan Brown to John Kelley -- both the Elder and the Younger -- made Uncle Sam's hardtop team.

Now, once a quadrennium, Boston is where foreigners try to make their national squad, as the Ethiopians and Russians will this time. "They're looking at performances here as an indicator for their selections," said race director Dave McGillivray.

Since the Boston and Athens courses are strikingly similar -- hilly point-to-pointers with few turns -- it's a useful gauge. If Hailu Negussie can crack 2:09 here, he'll stand an excellent chance at making the Ethiopian men's roster. So, too, will countrywoman Elfenesh Alemu, if she can post anything close to the 2:22:47 she ran in Tokyo last November.

The Russians, who've already had three women at 2:30:15 or better this month, have a trio of Athens contenders here in Lyubov Denisova, Victoria Klimina, and Irina Safarova, with their ace Svetlana Zakharova (last year's Boston victor) lining up in London Sunday. When the selectors sit down this spring, they'll have all the fresh data they need.

For six decades, that's how the Amateur Athletic Union, which once ran the sport, picked the US Olympic marathon team, either by designating Boston as one of its trials races (usually with Yonkers) or using the results here as a barometer.

In 1924, the top six finishers all made the team for Paris, where DeMar, at 36, collected the bronze medal. In 1956, when the Games were in December during Melbourne's summer, the younger Kelley was the top American at both Boston and Yonkers.

Once the format was changed to a one-race trials in 1968, Boston took a double hit. Not only wasn't it selected as a site (the Newton hills had something to do with that), but the top contenders avoided the event to focus on the trials. The one exception: the 1980 boycott year, when Bill Rodgers stuck around and won his third straight crown.

Most Olympic years, the top foreigners stayed away, too. So it was no accident that unheralded homeboys won Boston in 1968 (Amby Burfoot) and 1976 (Jack Fultz) with times in the 2:20s.

But during the 1980s, when the Yanks were busying themselves getting ready for Pittsburgh or Jersey City or Olympia, Wash., the rest of the world began using Boston as a benchmark.

In 1984, Great Britain's Geoff Smith and New Zealand's Lorraine Moller parlayed their whopping victories here (both by more than four minutes) into places on their Olympic teams for Los Angeles.

Then in 1988, Boston was used as the men's proving ground for nine African countries, which produced the first victor from the continent and the closest finish in race history to that point (one second between Kenya's Ibrahim Hussein and Tanzania's Juma Ikangaa).

Those days likely are over, though. Most foreign countries have abandoned one-shot trials, which are vulnerable to the whims of wind and weather and favorites running into trouble, as Deena (Drossin) Kastor did at St. Louis.

Kastor, who set an American record (2:21:16) in London last year, was looking like a sure winner with 2 miles to go before running out of gas and finishing more than a minute behind Colleen De Reuck.

"She was clicking the miles off," said McGillivray, who was race director of the women's trials. "All of a sudden, she came to almost a grinding halt. I thought, what if she gets passed by three people and doesn't make the team?"

That's why most countries base their selections either on resumes or results from multiple top-shelf races. The Kenyans, who've won everything in marathoning but the Olympic gold medal, picked their teams last month: Paul Tergat, Eric Wainaina, and Sammy Korir for the men, Catherine Ndereba, Margaret Okayo, and Alice Chelagat for the women.

Ndereba will be here, chasing her third title in five years while she tunes up for Athens. So will countrymen Rodgers Rop (who won here two years ago) and Martin Lel, the two men's alternates. If Tergat comes up lame (he's withdrawn from London with a strained calf), one of them could make the team with a victory here.

But the US still picks its marathoners on one day, as it does for every track-and-field event, and it's paid off with three Olympic medals, two of them gold.

"There's something to be said for that," mused McGillivray. "Rising to the occasion, performing under pressure when it counts . . ."

So the nation's top 88 men turned up on a chilly morning in Alabama, the top 130 women on a sunny one in Missouri. Most of them have neither the wind nor the will to beat themselves up again here. Pliska, who was 56th in the trials at 38, is one who does. He's answered the Patriots Day call 15 times in a row. Can't do that at Olympus.

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