It was at the first London Olympics 104 years ago that the marathon race was staged by royal appointment. The start was beneath the nursery at Windsor Castle, the finish below the Royal Box at White City Stadium, the distance, for the first time, was 26 miles 385 yards. The extra yards added to give the royal family the best views produced absolute drama with the collapse before the finish of the long-time leader, Dorando Pietri.
The little Italian pastry chef was disqualified for receiving outside assistance, and the event was reported by Arthur Conan-Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, for a national newspaper, which created such a public clamour that it set the marathon race distance forever more.
So when the 100-or-so runners set off for the final athletics event of the 2012 London Olympics on Sunday morning, they will face the same 26.2-mile distance used in 1908, but this time the British royal family won’t have to put itself out too much as they’ll be able to see much of the action from the balcony of Buckingham Palace, with the race starting and finishing on The Mall, the course involving five loops around the centre of the city, taking in some of the most famous landmarks in the world.
Not that the Kenyan trio seeking a cleansweep of the medals will be doing the tourist thing.
All three Kenyans have experience of racing on the streets of London, and two of them have strong records in championship marathons. It’s just a matter of trying to decide which one of the three will have their day of days today. Wilson Kipsang beat an impressive field in the London Marathon in April in 2hr 04min 44sec – about 50 minutes less than it took Pietri over a similar distance in 1908.
The morning’s course is different from the annual London race’s point to point route, but with the finishing stretch along the Embankment and to The Mall, it will be familiar enough to Kipsang. He’s rated at 3.25 as a consequence.
He won both his marathons in 2011 - 2:06:13 in Otsu and 2:03:42 (his PB) in Frankfurt, following from his first two marathons in 2010, including a 2:04:57 victory in Frankfurt.
His team mate Abel Kirui won back-to-back world titles in 2009 and 2011. He has a 2:05:04 PB from 2009, but he was well beaten by Kipsang when sixth in London four months ago. With that championship race record, Kirui is very tempting at 5.00.
7.50 shot Emmanuel Mutai, the 2009 world championships silver medallist, is a consistent racer whose results include a 2:04:40 victory in London in 2011 (his current PB) and second in New York. In 2010, he was second at both London and New York, but he was one place behind Kirui in London in April.
Who will challenge them? The Ethiopians, of course, led by Ayele Abshero, the 3.25 joint favourite. At just 21 and in his marathon debut, Abshero grabbed a 2:04:23 victory in Dubai in January. He broke a course record set by Haile Gebrselassie, with the fourth fastest performance on the all-time list.
He's raced sparingly since, winning a low-key half-marathon in Yangzhou (1:01:11) in last April and finishing second over 10km (27:56) in Manchester in late May.
Dubai was important for Ethiopian selectors. The runner-up in that race, Dino Sefir, ran the performance of his career, clocking 2:04:50. He is 12.00.
The Ethiopian No3 is 25-year-old Getu Feleke, the Rotterdam runner-up this season with a PB 2:04:50. He ran 2:05:44 to win in Amsterdam last October. He is also 12.00.
If you consider that coming into the Olympics, the first 29 on the 2012 world rankings are Kenyan or Ethiopian, all at 2:07:28 or faster, then the rest of the world has some catching up to do just to compete with these top six. The best of the rest on 2012 times on the start list is Patrick Tambwe, from France, courtesy of a 2:07:30 victory in Tiberias.
Bearing in mind the distance running form shown at the Games so far, 15.00 for Moroccan entry Adil Annani (2:07:43, fourth in London), might be worth keeping an eye on, as is Japan's Arata Fujiwara (2:07:48; 25.00) and Stephen Kiprotich (2:07:50; 25.00) of Uganda.
Given Kirui’s record in championship races, he ought to be the pick of the field for Olympic gold. But don’t bet on him offering anything like the finishing straight drama that Dorando Pietri provided in 1908.