Earlier today, Athletics Kenya announced their selections for the Kenyan Olympic Marathon team plus two reserves on each side. Here are the teams as they currently stand:
- Eliud Kipchoge
- Stanley Biwott
- Wesley Korir
- Cyprian Kotut (Reserve)
- Bernard Kipyego (Reserve)
- Helah Kiprop
- Jemima Sumong
- Visiline Jepkesho
- Mary Keitany (Reserve)
- Florence Kiplagat (Reserve)
Before we criticize Athletics Kenya for their selections and omissions (don't worry, we'll certainly get to that in a minute), we should note that these are both good teams. All three runners on both the men's and women's side have good chances of competing for medals in Rio. Moreover, the job Athletics Kenya undertakes in picking just three Kenyans to run in the Olympics will inevitably inspire controversy. There are just too many good runners to choose from. Someone with a very strong argument to make the team and contend for a gold is bound to get left off. That's what happens when Kenya is limited to sending three runners in the event.
And, truth be told, Athletics Kenya mostly got it right here. Elide Kipchoge, Stanley Biwott, Helah Kiprop, and Jemima Sumong are obvious and, presumably, uncontroversial picks both on recent and career accomplishments.
Kipchoge was last seen nearly setting a World Record in London and has won the last five marathons he's raced, dating back to 2014 Rotterdam. Those five aren't exactly lightweight marathons either as they include Chicago, London (twice), and Berlin. He was the most obvious selection on either side. Stanley Biwott came in second to Kipchoge in London after running toe-to-toe with him for 24 miles, and he won New York last year.
On the women's side, both Kiprop and Sumong were within 10 seconds of a world championship in Beijing. Their recent accomplishments aren't half bad either. Kiprop PR'd this year in Tokyo and Sumong won London. These are four good selections out of a possible six places. As they say, if you get a hit 2/3 of the time, you'll make it to the Hall of Fame. So, congratulations to Athletics Kenya for getting the obvious choices right.
That said, one should never look at a contingent of Kenyan Olympic marathoners and have to perform a quick Google search to figure out who the hell one of the runners is. At the risk of revealing myself as an uninformed hack, that's precisely what I had to do with Vesiline Jepkesho. She's run only one Marathon Major--Worlds in 2015--and finished 20th in that race. If you recall, that race was a bloodbath, so, while finishing is certainly not nothing on its own, finishing 20th does little to play up that accomplishment. Add in that she is only the 9th fastest Kenyan in 2016 and 40th in the world this year and there is no reasonable argument for her inclusion at the expense of those excluded.
The two reserve selections (Mary Keitany and Florence Kiplagat) are both more accomplished recently and in their careers. Keitany has two London and two New York wins under her belt and, despite her 9th place finish in London last month, was running with the leaders through 22 miles before getting tangled up in the fall that also took Sumong down. Her relegation to a reserve place is a clear instance of recency bias where her poor London performance--likely a result of a fall, not fitness--wrongfully overshadowed a larger resume. Even if you want to heavily weight recent results, Florence Kiplagat deserves the final spot over Jepkesho. She finished third in London and won Chicago last fall. Her PR is five minutes faster than Jepkesho's.
On the men's side, Wesley Korir's place as the third Kenyan on the team isn't quite as indefensible as Jepkesho's but it's still pretty darn silly. He hasn't finished in the top-3 of a marathon since 2012. Not just major marathons, all marathons. Wilson Kipsang would have been the obvious choice, but Athletics Kenya gets a pass on that after it was reported that he wanted no part of the heat and humidity in Rio and withdrew his name from consideration.
But, this is Kenya, where you don't have to go with a complete non-contender as a fourth choice--assuming Kipsang would have been on the team had he wanted to be. Maybe Dennis Kimetto--you know, the current world record holder in the event, you might have hear of him--would make sense to include in a race where the goal is to run a fast marathon. Maybe they have concerns with Kimetto's consistency, which is reasonable enough. Even then, they could go with either Bernard Kipyego--4th in Boston, won Tokyo--or Dickson Chumba--won Chicago, third in Tokyo--for the third spot. With the news that Kipsang did not want to be on the team, Korir's selection isn't entirely crazy, but it does seem that there are better candidates available.
At the end of the day, Kenya will be in strong contention for two or three medals on each side of the Olympic Marathon in Rio, but that would be true if they picked any of their top 20 marathoners. The goal is not to merely send a respectable team but to send the best team possible. Kenya has not done that here in 2016. That's not news; they do this every Olympic and World Championship year. But, just because it's Kenyan tradition to sandbag the marathon doesn't make it optimal strategy.