Kenyans to race for fallen defending champ

16:13, Aug 11 2012

The Kenyans will be running with heavy hearts as overwhelming favorites when the Olympic men's marathon meanders through the streets of London.

Four years ago in Beijing, Sammy Wanjiru captured the country's first Olympic marathon gold. But he died last year after a fall from a second-floor balcony during a domestic dispute. His countrymen will compete in his memory.

And the expectations are enormous in the final event of the competition Sunday. The crew of Wilson Kipsang, Abel Kirui and Emmanuel Mutai very well could sweep the medals for Kenya, a prospect they're trying to downplay.

"That is very challenging for us," Mutai said. "Everyone (Kenyans) was saying, 'You marathoners are going to save us because you are the last to compete.' They are giving us a lot pressure."

With good reason.

Kipsang is one of most commanding figures in the event today, winning London Marathon last April. Mutai perennially finishes near the top and Kirui is a two-time defending world champion.

Not a bad lineup to send out against the Ethiopians, which are expected to give the Kenyans a run for gold.

"I know we have two things to do here in London. Firstly, we have to retain the title of the late Samuel Wanjiru," Mutai said. "Also, for the glory of yourself. I personally want to make sure that I run good. If I win a gold medal that is an achievement. The most important things is we need to retain that title."

Wanjiru was dominating the distance before he died. The 24-year-old won the London Marathon in 2009, along with the Chicago Marathon in 2009 and 2010.

With Wanjiru in their thoughts, the Kenyans are trying to keep that long-awaited marathon gold medal at home.

"To win a gold is the most important thing," Mutai said.

Unlike past Olympics, there won't be any roar from the crowd when the runners enter the stadium. That's because they finish miles away as they take a scenic tour of London, passing by Big Ben, St. Paul's Cathedral, London Bridge, the Tower of London and finish right by Buckingham Palace.

For Ethiopian great Haile Gebrselassie, not finishing inside the stadium is almost a shame, especially since the capacity crowds have been so boisterous in London. The British fans cheer wildly for their athletes and everyone else along with them.

"This is the best crowd I've ever seen in my life in athletics," said Gebrselassie, a two-time Olympic 10,000-meter champion and former world-record holder in the marathon. "To finish in a stadium, of course, it's the best."

There also will be an athlete competing not for a country, but as an independent athlete under the banner of the International Olympic Committee.

"I'm representing the whole world, basically," Guor Marial said at a recent news conference.

Marial was given a place at the games under the Olympic flag after he fled a refugee camp in what is now South Sudan during a civil war over a decade ago. He landed in the United States, seeking asylum.

He will have "I.O.A." printed on his new gray and black uniform for the race, just like he recently did on his new jacket: Independent Olympic Athlete.

Marial has only run two marathons in his life, but finished both of them in Olympic times. His second was just two months ago.

As for expectations, well, Marial really doesn't have any.

"I'm going into the race open minded," said the 28-year-old, who now lives in Arizona. "I will just go there and see what happens."