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Wanjiru first Kenyan to win Olympic men's marathon

8/24/2008

BEIJING -- Samuel Wanjiru already had made a name for
himself in the heady world of Kenyan distance running. Now he's
made history.

He pulled away over the final few miles Sunday to become the
first Kenyan to win an Olympic marathon -- and he did it faster than
anyone ever has.

Wanjiru negotiated the 26.2-mile course through the Beijing
streets in bright morning sunshine in an Olympic record of 2 hours,
6 minutes, 32 seconds.

"In Kenya we have many medals," Wanjiru said, "but I'm glad I
have this one."

Kenyans had twice won men's marathon silver, most recently in
2000, but never a gold.

At the Beijing Games, Kenya won 14 track and field medals,
behind only the United States (23) and Russia (18). Five of them
were gold.

It was just the third marathon for the 21-year-old Wanjiru, who
first set the world half-marathon record at age 18, then broke it
twice again last year.

Two-time world champion Jaouad Gharib of Morocco won the silver
in 2:07:16. Ethiopian Tsegay Kebede, winner of this year's Paris
Marathon, took the bronze in 2:10:00. Ethiopian Deriba Merga led
much of the race but faded badly at the end to wind up fourth.

The crowd roared as Wanjiru entered the Bird's Nest, and he
responded by raising his left hand, then clapped several times. The
final lap in the last event of track and field at the Beijing
Olympics was run around an infield painted blue for the night's
closing ceremony.

Just across the line, Wanjiru -- all 112 pounds of him -- kneeled
and crossed himself several times. He had just broken the Olympic
mark of 2:09:21 set by Carlos Lopes of Portugal in the 1984 Los
Angeles Games.

As Wanjiru was still on one knee, Gharib crossed the line for
the silver.

Wanjiru, who trains at 7,600 feet on a trail that runs alongside
spectacular Thompson Falls, won the Fukuoka International Marathon
in Japan last December and was runner-up at the London Marathon in
April.

Americans Dathan Ritzenhein and Ryan Hall finished ninth and
10th, respectively.

Defending Olympic champion Stefano Baldini of Italy, in his
final marathon, finished 12th, then praised those who finished at
the front.

"In the last 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) it was unbelievable what
the ... Africans were able to do under these conditions," he said.

The temperature was 75 degrees with 52 percent humidity when the
race began at 7:30 a.m. and it heated up steadily through the
morning, reaching 86 degrees by the finish.

The lead pack began to separate through the first three miles.
By the halfway mark, eight were grouped at the front, led by
Eritrean Yonas Kifle.

After almost 19 miles, the pack had dwindled to three - Wanjiru,
Merga and Gharib.

"I had to push the pace to tire the other runners," Wanjiru
said. "I had to push the pace because my body gets tired when I
slow down."

Reigning world champion Luke Kibet of Kenya stayed with the
leaders through the early stages but fell back and finally pulled
out of the race shortly past the halfway mark. He later said he had
a stomach problem.

World record-holder Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia decided not
to run the race because of concerns about air pollution. But after
an overnight thunderstorm, a glorious blue sky greeted the final
day of these games.

The race began at the edge of Tiananmen Square, then wound
around the Temple of Heaven before turning northward toward the
Olympic Green and the Bird's Nest, where colorful dancers, drummers
and cyclists entertained the crowd as it awaited the runners.