When one hears of the town Sapporo, immediately their thoughts turn to the city’s most famous export, its namesake beer. On Saturday and Sunday morning in Japan (Friday and Saturday evening in Canada), Sapporo will be on display across millions of television sets, smartphones and computer streaming services stretching from Kelowna, BC to Africa’s great Rift Valley to Flagstaff, AZ and across Japan. Instead of its famous beer however, the eyes of the world will be watching the world’s greatest distance runners in their 42.2 kilometre quest to be immortalized in Olympic history.
The marathon is the Olympics’ marquee event. The winners of the men’s and women’s event will no doubt push the human limits of mental toughness, physical strength, and courage.
Recently, the limits of what a marathoner can do have been greatly expanded, no more so than in the exploits of Eliud Kipchoge (Kenya). Yes, the world record holder and first person to run a marathon under two hours is back to defend his title. Unsurprisingly he is also the favourite for the event, having only ever lost two marathons. Kipchoge’s palmares does not stop there. He has won multiple marathon majors, including the likes of London, Berlin and Chicago, and adorns three Olympic medals from Athens, Beijing and Rio.
The men’s event, which is set to start at 7:00 AM local time (6:00 PM ET in Canada), features other high profile talent as well. First on the list has to be the only man in the field to have beaten Kipchoge, Shura Kitata (Ethiopia). Kitata enters the event with a personal best of 2:04 and having won the most recent edition of the London Marathon in 2020.
His compatriot Lelisa Desisa (Ethiopia) should also be a challenger for the Olympic title. Sporting a personal best of 2:04, Desisa is a multiple time Boston Marathon Champion and won the marathon at the 2019 World Championships in Doha.
Outside of the might of East Africa, Japan is one of the world’s running powers. Their team is led by Suguru Osako who, if he won, would be treated like a rockstar in the running crazed nation. Osaka is the former Japanese record holder in the marathon and is most famous for earning 100 Million Yen after breaking the record in Chicago.
The American challenge will be led by Rio bronze medalist Galen Rupp. Since a return from surgery in 2018, Rupp has been quietly returning to his best form. Although some controversy revolves around him and his former coach, Alberto Salazar, Rupp easily won the U.S. Olympic Trials for the marathon and will be looking to return to the podium on Sunday in Sapporo.
Canada is sending its fastest men’s team ever (by personal best). It is led by Canadian record holder in the distance, Cameron Levins. From British Columbia, Levins almost did not make the Canadian team, but ran a spectacular race in Austria on the final weekend of qualifying. He will be flanked by 2019 Canadian Champion and 2nd fastest Canadian ever, Trevor Hofbauer. Hofbauer, an Albertan, towering above the field at a height of 6’3”, surprised the Canadian running community when he ran a five minute personal best to book his ticket to Tokyo. Last but not least, Ben Preisner is the youngest member of the Canadian contingent. Preisner, from Ontario, owns the fastest marathon debut by a Canadian and the Olympics will be his second marathon.
The men’s field does not stop there; other notables toeing the line include 2012 Olympic Champion Stephen Kiprotich (Uganda), 5x Olympian Abdi Abdirahman (USA), Kaan Kigen Ozbilen (Turkey), Tadesse Abraham (Switzerland), Stephen Mokoka (South Africa), Sondre Nordstad Moen (Norway), Zane Robertson (New Zealand), Amos Kipruto (Kenya), Laurence Cherono (Kenya), Sisay Lemma (Ethiopia), Oqbe Kibrom Ruesom (Eritrea), and Bashir Abdi (Belgium).
While Kipchoge is the big favourite in the men’s race, it is also difficult to look past Brigid Kosgei (Kenya) who is the women’s world record holder. In 2019, Kosgei blew the former world record out of the water, running 2:14. Perhaps more impressive, she has risen to the top after debuting in 2:47 and giving birth to twins in 2014. This is her first Olympics.
Unlike Kipchoge, Kosgei’s biggest challenges do not come from their great Ethopian rivals, but within the Kenyan squad itself. Ruth Chepngetich (Kenya) is the world champion, a title she earned during a supremely hot and humid race in Doha. To add to her accolades, in 2021 Chepngetich set the world record in the half marathon, shattering the previous record by half a minute.
The previous half marathon record holder, Peres Jepchirchir rounds out the Kenyan team. Not only is she the defending World Half Marathon champion, but also has a Canadian connection, running the Ottawa 10K three times including winning the 2016 edition.
Another athlete in the field with a Canadian connection is Tigist Girma (Ethiopia). Girma broke onto the marathon scene with a victory at the 2019 Ottawa Marathon. After taking the Ottawa title, Girma went on to run 2:19 over the marathon distance and win the Ethiopian trials to book her ticket to Tokyo.
Lonah Salpeter could be the first Isreali women to ever win the Olympic marathon. Of runners based outside East Africa, Salpeter has the best resume. She also has positive experience running in Japan, as she won the 2020 Tokyo Marathon.
The Commonwealth challenge is led by the ever improving Aussie, Sinead Diver. Although she only took up running in 2010 and is the oldest Australian to ever participate in the Olympics, Diver cannot be overlooked. Having led the 2019 London Marathon for the first 30 kilometres, she is not afraid to go for the win.
Canada is led by Malindi Elmore. Not only is she the Canadian record holder in the marathon, but she also has the best chance of the Canadian contingent to medal. Elmore ran in the 1500m at the 2004 Athens Games before retiring, switching to triathlon, then returning to athletics in the marathon. The Olympics will be her third marathon.
Natasha Wodak is the second fastest Canadian of all-time and Tokyo will also be her third marathon. She is also entering her second Olympics after competing in Rio. She qualified for the Games at the 2020 Marathon Project after running her first marathon seven years previously.
The 2019 Canadian Champion Dayna Pidhoresky rounds out the Canadian squad. Pidhoresky has had a tough run up to the Olympic marathon. On her flight over to the Games, a passenger tested positive and Pidhoresky was forced to isolate for much of her final build-up and taper period. But Pidhoresky is a gutsy racer, and cannot be counted out.
The women’s marathon is set to start Saturday morning at 7:00 AM (or Friday evening 5:00 PM ET in Canada). It also features notable athletes including Lisa Weightman (Australia), Volha Mazuronak (Belarus), Roza Dereje (Ethiopia), Birhane Dibaba (Ethiopia), Melat Yisak Kejeta (Ethiopia), Moa Ichiyama (Japan), Helalia Johannes (Namibia), Sally Kipyego (USA), Molly Siedel (USA), and Aliphine Tuliamuk (USA).
While the script of the Olympic marathon is yet to be written, the biggest impact on the race will likely be the weather. The International Olympic Committee moved the marathon and the race walk out of Tokyo and to the northern city of Sapporo in hopes of finding cooler weather. Although the weather is not what Canadians would classify as cool, the temperature will be about 25 degrees celsius at start time, a far cry from the 31 that athletes in Tokyo have been forced to endure.
Regardless of the temperature, anything over 15 degrees for a marathon is considered warm, so the heat will definitely have an impact on the race. As such, expect to see a negative split where the athletes start to surge at the halfway mark in an effort to preserve precious energy early in the race. We could also see a small breakaway of athletes who do not believe they can compete with the top ranked competitors and want to bank time before the surges start.
Regardless of how the event turns out, I am sure all competitors will want a bottle of Sapporo’s finest at the conclusion of their event.
Canadians can watch the Olympic marathons by tuning into Olympic Games Primetime with Scott Russell on CBC. Canadian Olympian Krista Duchene will be leading the coverage. You can also watch on CBC GEM starting at 5:00 PM EDT/2:00 PM PDT on Friday and Saturday evening.
Stephen Andersen is a law student and cross country athlete at the University of New Brunswick. He is from Burlington, ON. You can find him on Instagram @andersen_runs or Twitter @AndersenRuns.