The 2012 London Olympic Women’s Marathon just might be the greatest race women’s marathon in the history of the sport. Team USA has put together arguably its deepest women’s marathon team in the history of the event: Shalane Flanagan, Desiree Davila and Kara Goucher, all of whom are top-of-the-world runners that have stood on the podium at World Marathon Majors events, a two-year racing series that includes the Olympic Games.
The good news is any one of these women could medal, likely in the bronze position with a long-shot chance at gold. The bad news is it won’t be easy. The 2012 Olympic women’s marathon has the fastest field of runners in the history of the event. Seven women in the race have broken the sub-2:20 mark, and none of them are American.
Since the women’s marathon debut at the Olympic games in Los Angeles in 1984, only two American women have medaled: Joan Benoit, who took that first gold in 1984, and Deena Kastor, who nabbed bronze in 2004 in Athens. The U.S. has long run in the shadow of Kenya and Ethiopia’s powerhouse women. Then there is Great Britain’s Paula Radcliffe, the fastest female marathoner in history. However, Radcliffe withdrew from the race Sunday due to a foot injury.
Flanagan, who won the US Olympic trials in a personal best time 2:25:38, might be the American to beat. The London games won’t be her first Olympic rodeo. She won a bronze medal in 2008 in Beijing in the 10,000 meters. Then she dazzled in her marathon debut, taking second place at the 2010 ING New York City Marathon behind Kenya’s Edna Kiplagat, who went on to become the 2011 World Champion. But since NYC, Flanagan has only run one other marathon—the trials themselves—and her personal best is the slowest of the three Americans. There will be faster and more experienced women in the field, but Flanagan, the daughter of a former women’s marathon world record holder, knows how to close. We have yet to see what she can really accomplish at the marathon distance, and running with the best in the world could bring out the best in her.
Davila, who took second in the US Olympic trials in a time of 2:25.55, is a perennial runner-up. After taking fourth place at the 2010 Chicago marathon, she announced her arrival on the world-stage at the 2011 Boston Marathon where she battled for the win a guts-on-the-floor sprint to the finish with Caroline Kilel of Kenya. Davila took second by the narrowest of margins, finishing in 2:22.38, the fastest time ever posted by an American woman in Boston and a personal best for Davila. In fact, she has the fastest personal best of the three Americans. If any “dark-horse” runner could swoop in and take it all, it could be Davila.
Kara Goucher, who finished third at the US Olympic Trials in a time of 2:26.06, always seems to come in third in the big leagues. She took third in New York in 2008 and third in Boston in 2009 before taking time off to have a baby. She came back to Boston in 2012 by posting a personal best of 2:24:52 to finish fifth. Goucher will have the toughest job when it comes to hitting the podium at the Olympics, but it’s not impossible.
The Rest of the Field
With personal best times that are as much as 7 minutes slower than the front-runners, including all of the Kenyans and Ethiopians, Team USA faces no small task. Flanagan, Davila and Goucher will have to run at the absolute top of their games for a chance at a medal.
The front-runners for the gold are Liliya Shobukhova of Russia, the reigning Chicago Marathon and World Marathon Majors champion, and Mary Keitany of Kenya, the reigning London marathon champion. These women know how to win races and have the two fastest times in the field.
Also in the medal hunt is Kenya’s Edna Kiplagat, the reigning world champion and 2010 New York City Marathon champion, Kenya’s Priscah Jeptoo, Germany’s Irina Mikitenko, and Ethiopia’s Tiki Gelana, Mare Dibaba, and Aselefech Mergia.
One of those women will likely win the Olympic Marathon. But one of the exciting things about marathon racing is that just about anything can, and often does, happen. While Keitany, followed by Shobukhova in a close second, is the hands down favorite, any of the top women could win. Shobukhova has the fastest personal best in the field and has won four out of her last five marathons. That loss came at the hands of Keitany in the 2011 London Marathon. But Keitany is not infallible herself. Both Kiplagat and Flanagan bested her at the 2010 ING New York City Marathon. Either one could get the jump on her again. Then there are the women of Ethiopia who are young, fast and still up-and-coming.
Only one thing is certain—the race will be one of the most exciting in history. The women’s marathon will run on Sunday, August 5 at 11:00 a.m. in London.