With a subtle but unmatchable surge in mile 19, Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya broke the pack and ran solo the rest of the way to repeat as Olympic marathon champion. The world record-holder finished in 2:08:38, with a second half of 1:03:35. His winning margin of 1:20 is the biggest since Frank Shorter won the 1972 Olympic marathon.
Abdi Nageeye of the Netherlands (2:09:58) took the silver medal, and Bashir Abdi of Belgium (2:10:00) goes home with bronze. Galen Rupp, the 2016 bronze medalist, was the top American, finishing eighth in 2:11:41. The other Americans, Jake Riley (2:16:26) and Abdi Abdirahman (2:18:27), placed 29th and 41st, respectively. Running in his fifth Olympics, 44-year-old Abdirahman was the oldest man in the field.
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Kipchoge covered the stretch between 30K and 35K in 14:28, 30 seconds faster than any previous 5K split. When he went to the front for good, gradually but undeniably, the 10-man lead pack splintered immediately. Kipchoge’s lead was suddenly 3, then 5, then 7 seconds, and the gap continued to increase over the remaining 11 kilometers of the race.
“I wanted to create a [gap] to show the world that this is a beautiful race,” Kipchoge said about his definitive move. “I wanted to test my fitness, I wanted to test how I’m feeling. I wanted to show that we have hope in the future.”
The battle for the other medals was much more dramatic. Nageeye, Abdi, 2019 Boston and Chicago winner Lawrence Cherono of Kenya, and Ayad Lamdassem of Spain entered the final kilometer together. Lamdassem lost touch just before they entered the final straight. With 200 meters to go, Cherono, who won Boston and Chicago in sprint finishes, seemed best poised to take the silver.
But Nageeye obviously had a lot left, as he repeatedly motioned to Abdi to come with him, even as Nageeye passed Cherono. Abdi was able to heed his training partner’s beckoning and overtake Cherono steps before the line. Cherono finished fourth in 2:10:02.
“In the last 800 meters, I wanted to go, but I thought about Bashir,” Nageeye said. “In the last 3 kilometers, he suffered from cramp, and I was encouraging him to come through.”
The race was held in Sapporo, a coastal city about 500 miles north of Tokyo, in an attempt to escape the extreme heat and humidity of the Tokyo summer. At the start, the temperature was 79 degrees, with 80 percent humidity, for an oppressive dew point of 73. The temperature climbed to 80 by the time the medalists finished.
One hundred and five men started the race, which began in Odori Park in the heart of Sapporo. After two short, shaded laps within the park, the runners headed out for one long loop around the city. They passed Odori Park a little after the halfway mark, then did two 10K-loops (the northern section of the longer loop) before finishing at Odori Park.
Similarly to the women’s marathon, the first half passed at a reasonable, steady pace, much slower than the top competitors are used to running in a marathon. What was a 50+-man pack early gradually lost men for whom the combination of 2:10 marathon pace and warm, humid weather was too much. Two dozen men passed halfway in 1:05:03. Kipchoge was at or near the front pretty much all of that time, with Rupp often perched just off of Kipchoge’s shoulder.
There were big casualties early on. Shura Kitata of Ethiopia—the 2020 London Marathon winner, who ended Kipchoge’s win streak—stopped running in the ninth kilometer, holding his right hamstring. Stephen Kiprotich of Uganda, the 2012 Olympic champion, also started walking before the 10K mark. Ethiopian Sisay Lemma, a 2:03 marathoner, walked off the course just after halfway. Of the 105 starters, 76 finished.
Kipchoge looked incredibly comfortable in the early parts of the race. At a turn around 18K, he pointed out to Brazilian Daniel Do Nascimento the painted green line indicating the course. The two smiled, Kipchoge gave a thumbs up, and then they shared a fist bump. Later, during his solo run to the finish, Kipchoge smiled occasionally.
“That smile is the happiness,” he said. “They say to enjoy this world is to be happy. While you are happy, it helps you relax and enjoy the race.”
At 28K, Kipchoge took a slight lead for the first time, and Rupp and others started to suffer. The pack reformed, but was vulnerable. When Kipchoge went ahead for good a little more than a mile later, nobody could match him. By 35K, his lead was already up to 27 seconds, and he ran unchallenged to his second Olympic marathon title.
“It means a lot for me, especially at this time,” Kipchoge said about repeating as champion. “It was really hard last year, [when the Olympics were] postponed. I am happy for the local organizing committee who made this race happen. It is a sign that shows the world we are heading in the right direction, we are on the right transition to a normal life. I can say congratulations to them that they made this Olympics happen.”
Scott is a veteran running, fitness, and health journalist who has held senior editorial positions at Runner’s World and Running Times. Much of his writing translates sport science research and elite best practices into practical guidance for everyday athletes. He is the author or coauthor of several running books, including Running Is My Therapy, Advanced Marathoning, and Meb for Mortals. Scott has also written about running for Slate, The Atlantic, the Washington Post, and other members of the sedentary media. His lifetime running odometer is past 110,000 miles, but he’s as much in love as ever.