Continental divide

Since 1988, African runners and the rest of the field worlds apart

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By John Powers
Globe Staff / April 18, 2008

The Big Bang happened 20 years ago today, when Kenya's Ibrahim Hussein outdashed Tanzania's Juma Ikangaa down Boylston Street and won Boston by one second in the closest finish in the race's history and the first victory by an African runner.

So began a new and enduring era at the world's oldest marathon, which likely will continue in this year's 112th edition and for decades to come. Since Hussein's triumph in 1988, all but two of the men's winners have been Africans and all but two of those have been Kenyans.

On Monday, defending champion Robert Cheruiyot will be bidding to become the first four-time champion since Bill Rodgers in 1980 and the first foreigner since Canada's Gerard Cote in 1948. "At home they think that the tradition is that a Kenyan always wins Boston," says Timothy Cherigat, who won here in the last Olympic year and is back for a fifth time.

Not just here but all five of the World Marathon Majors, including last Sunday in London, where Martin Lel outkicked countryman Samuel Wanjiru to win for the third time in four years. Since 2000, Kenyans have claimed Boston, Berlin, and Chicago six times apiece, London and New York four. "It's one of the most impressive streaks in sports we've ever seen," says New York race director Mary Wittenberg.

It's not only a matter of victories, but also depth. During the past decade, 22 Kenyans have made the medal podium here and placed an aggregate 55 runners in the top 10. Last year, Cheruiyot led a sweep of the first four places, with his countrymen grabbing seven of the top 10.

Marathoning was still a relative novelty for the Kenyans in 1988, when they won every Olympic race between 400 and 10,000 meters. "They weren't into the marathon," says Patrick Lynch, the John Hancock running consultant who has recruited the elite field since 1986. "They didn't see it as their thing."

The Kenyan thing was cross-country (they won the world team title every year between 1986-2003) and the steeplechase, which they've won at every Olympics they've competed in since 1968 and are favored to sweep for the second straight time in Beijing. "I used to run around saying, 'I'm Kip Keino' ," Hussein once said.

What turned the Kenyans' heads toward the marathon was prize money. What lured them to Boston was the lore. "Boston at the time was considered the greatest marathon in the world," says Tom Ratcliffe, the Concord-based manager whose KIMbia Athletics represents more than two dozen Kenyans.

Once Hussein won it, his countrymen followed - Cosmas Ndeti, Moses Tanui, Lameck Aguta, Joseph Chebet, Elijah Lagat, Rodgers Rop, Cheruiyot, and Cherigat. "They all thought: I can do the same. What makes them different?" says Ratcliffe. "They weren't intimidated by the challenge. Maybe it was a bit of Kenyan machismo."

Winning Boston guarantees something close to immortality back home. "I was very famous," Chebet said, after he'd won in 1999. "When I got back to Kenya, everybody wanted to see me. It changed my life drastically."

A laurel wreath from the Mayah is worth its weight in gold. In a country where the annual per capita income is $1,200, the winner's purse is a lifetime's earnings and a ticket to more. "A lot of Kenyan athletes grow up dreaming of being the Boston Marathon champion," says Ratcliffe. "Especially in Iten, where hundreds and hundreds of runners are chasing the dream."

Feeling right at home

Last year, 68 Kenyan marathoners were ranked in the world's top 100, including 13 of the top 20. Nine of them will be here Monday, continuing an annual parade that now is in its third decade.

"I think there's a special affection and allegiance to coming to Boston," says Guy Morse, the Boston Athletic Association's executive director. "It's that compound, exponential effect that starts by winning here and grows from there."

It's a relationship that the BAA and John Hancock, the race's sponsor since 1986, has been careful to encourage and cultivate. "The hospitality, the way Boston treats the athletes makes Kenyans want to come here," says Cherigat. "The way we are received, we feel like we are home."

The Kenyans, along with the rest of the elite athletes, are brought by limousine from Logan Airport to John Hancock's conference center on Trinity Place, where they live Olympic-village style in private rooms, eat from an abundant menu, and relax in lounges stocked with ice cream and other snacks. Massage therapists and translators are on call, as is transportation to training runs and for course views. Their coaches, spouses, and guests are invited along, at Hancock's expense.

The day after the historic 1988 race, Lynch brought Hussein, Ikangaa, and women's winner Rosa Mota to the company's skybox at the Garden for a Celtics game, where they were introduced to the crowd. "That was one of the wonderful moments," Lynch says. "There was a standing ovation for them. Even the players looked up."

Lynch makes a point of staying in touch with athletes, managers, and shoe company representatives throughout the year, often rising at 3 a.m. to make calls to Kenya. He'll also attend the other four marathon majors and the biennial world championships. "Like everything in life, relationships are No. 1," Lynch says.

If Boston's elite field seems lopsided with Kenyans, that isn't a problem for the BAA. "I've heard comments over the years that it'd be nice to have an American win again," says Morse. "But we've always subscribed to the view that we should invite the best to be here, wherever they're from. I don't think it's a negative that the Kenyans have continued to dominate."

Though the Kenyans perennially win the other four majors, the elite fields are more diverse elsewhere by design. "Our race very much reflects our city," says New York's Wittenberg. "We want as many countries represented as possible, so we try to go for the top runners in as many as we can."

London, whose course passes Buckingham Palace, likes to collect titled heads - this year's field included Lel, countryman and world champion Luke Kibet, Olympic gold medalist Stefano Baldini of Italy, former two-time world victor Jaouad Gharib of Morocco, and US Olympic trials winner Ryan Hall.

"We've prided ourselves in trying to make sure that we have that international feel so that the event doesn't just look like the Kenyan or the African championships," says London race director Dave Bedford. "That's why we have gone out so aggressively to look at the champions from other countries."

Inspiring US runners

Boston's approach always has been "best athletes available." If most of them are Kenyans, so be it. "We've never subscribed to a race that we set up or contrived in any way," says Morse. "It's always been, 'just bring 'em in, line 'em up, and let 'em run.' That's our heritage and that has never been compromised."

If anything, the Kenyan domination has spurred their rivals, including Americans, to kick things up a notch.

"Any time anyone's running faster, it definitely makes you raise your game," says Hall, who finished fifth in London last weekend in the fastest time ever (2:06:17) by a US-born runner. "So they've definitely raised the bar, and it's exciting to see the Americans starting to close that gap down and answer their level of competitiveness."

Meb Keflezighi's breakthrough silver in Athens was the first medal by an American since Frank Shorter in 1976. Two years ago he, Alan Culpepper, and Brian Sell placed 3-4-5 in Boston, the best showing by domestic runners in more than two decades.

"We've got enough talent," says Bill Rodgers, who won here four times. "There are going to be more Ryan Halls and Dathan Ritzenheins. But in Kenya, I'll bet there are 150 athletes. It's hard when their numbers are so huge."

When Rodgers ruled Boston, his main rivals were his fellow Americans, the Japanese, the Canadians, and the odd European. Then came prize money, the lure of the lore, and the Big Bang.

When Ibrahim Hussein broke the tape two decades ago, he opened up an expressway that runs all the way from the Back Bay to the Rift Valley, where the man who wins Boston returns a blistered demigod. "It made a big difference in my life," says Cherigat. "I can say that Boston opened my way."

John Powers can be reached at

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