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(STEFAN WERMUTH/REUTERS)
(STEFAN WERMUTH/REUTERS)

London 2012

London Games shows the world is catching up to Kenyan distance runners Add to ...

Wilson Kipsang Kiprotich tried to be diplomatic and gracious, but the question remained.

The Kenyan had just won a bronze medal in the men’s marathon on Sunday, and he was being asked something many had been pondering as the London Olympics came to a close. What happened to Kenya? The country that once dominated distance events was leaving the Olympics with just two gold medals, far fewer than the 12 golds the coach of Kenya’s national team, Julius Kirwa, had boldly predicted.

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“This year, the Olympics, it was very competitive,” Mr. Kipsang Kiprotich said after he and teammate Abel Kirui got thrashed in the marathon by an unheralded runner from Uganda. “We can say that preparation all over the world was very high and the competition in this year’s Olympics was very high. So I think it is no problem, it is just a part of the competition. Today, I win. Tomorrow, you win and life continues.”

Competition in distance races at the London Olympics was indeed better than ever, and largely at the expense of Kenya, once a running powerhouse. Who would have imagined runners from the United States, Britain and France winning medals in the 5,000 metres, 10,000 metres, 1,500 metres and the steeplechase? Or Kenyans shut out of the medals in 1,500 metres? Or Kenyans not winning either the men’s or women’s marathon?

In many ways, the big story of track at the Olympics, aside from Usain Bolt’s triumphs, has been the shift in the landscape of distance running. For decades, Kenya dominated these events, so much so that its famed Rift Valley was considered almost sacred ground, capable of producing super human beings who could run forever. The London Games proved that mystique is gone, and the rest of the world is catching up. Kenya won 11 medals in total in London, three fewer than in Beijing. And while it can still claim some of the best runners in the world, such as David Ruisha in the 800 metres and Ezekiel Kemboi in the steeplechase, many of its top athletes simply got blown away.

Take Sunday’s marathon.

On paper, this looked like a guaranteed gold for Kenya. Mr. Kipsang Kiprotich had run the second-fastest marathon ever and Mr. Kirui was a two-time world champion. They were heavy favourites and they took charge of the race, leading most of the way.

But when an unknown Ugandan, Stephen Kiprotich, made a sudden surge with about five kilometres left, the Kenyans didn’t react. Mr. Kiprotich won easily, beating Mr. Kirui by 26 seconds and Mr. Kipsang Kiprotich by one minute and 36 seconds. Even the Ugandan was stunned by his win. “I was thinking that maybe the Kenyans would win,” he said afterward. “I didn’t believe I could win the race.”

Canadians too are getting into the act. Three Canadian men qualified for the marathon, the first time that has happened since 1996. Cameron Levins made it to the 5,000-metre final, a first in 40 years. Mr. Levins and Mohammed Ahmed also competed for Canada in the 10,000, finishing 11th and 14th. None of the Canadian marathoners – Dylan Wykes, Eric Gillis, Reid Coolsaet – posed much of a challenge in the race, finishing 20th, 22nd and 27th respectively. But they believe they are the first wave of a new resurgence in distance running in Canada. “The vibe for distance running in London this year inside the Olympic team was strong,” Mr. Gillis said after the race.

“Hopefully, we’ll keep the tradition going and young guys will come up and keep on pushing the pace and pushing the boundaries,” Mr. Coolsaet added.

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