Figuring the top marathoner of year is difficult, but it's not an American

November 11, 1990|By Phil Hersh | Phil Hersh,Chicago Tribune

NEW YORK -- If there were a poll to determine who is No. 1 in marathoning this year, it would seem as inconclusive as similar surveys in college sports.

The track rankings are determined by Track & Field News magazine, which calls itself "the bible of the sport." It will need Solomon's wisdom to make its choices this year.

The results of Sunday's New York Marathon only confused the issue, especially because hot weather produced a men's winner with the slowest time since 1984 and a woman with the slowest since 1978.

Despite a time of 2 hours, 12 minutes, 39 seconds, Douglas Wakiihuri's win at New York -- added to that in the 1990 Commonwealth Games -- could give the Kenyan the top spot for the first time.

Or it could go to Gelindo Bordin of Italy, who ran the year's second-fastest time of 2:08:19 to win Boston, in addition to the European Championships and Venice.

And some would pick Steve Moneghetti of Australia, who has the fastest time of the year at 2:08:16. But Moneghetti was a three-second loser to Wakiihuri in the Commonwealth Games.

"We will find this out next year," said the always evasive Wakiihuri, referring to the World Championships in Japan.

Bordin and Wakiihuri are 1-1 in their previous meetings. Bordin won the 1988 Olympics, with Wakiihuri second. Wakiihuri won the 1987 worlds, with Bordin third.

Last year's No. 1, Juma Ikangaa of Tanzania, could have stayed there by reprising his 1989 New York victory. But Ikangaa, second at Boston, was fourth at New York.

Among the women, the choice is equally difficult. Rosa Mota of Portugal won Boston in the year's best time, 2:25:23, and won her third straight European Championship. Wanda Panfil of Poland won New York, London and Nagoya, Japan, with a best of 2:26:31 at London.

No matter. Panfil's challenge to Mota is still a welcome change in women's marathoning, which has stagnated of late.

In the last dozen years, four women -- Mota, Grete Waitz and Ingrid Kristiansen of Norway and Joan Benoit Samuelson of the United States -- have dominated the sport. They have accounted for 15 of the 16 fastest times ever run and all four Olympic and world championship women's marathon titles, and one of them has been No. 1 all but one year since 1978.

By comparison, 12 men account for the 12 top men's times, and 10 men have led the Track & Field News rankings since 1978.

Waitz, 37, thinks the times are finally changing.

"I think Ingrid and Rosa will stay [near the top], but by the next World Championships and Olympics, others will come along," Waitz said.

At 31, Panfil is middle-aged for an elite runner but still relatively young in marathoning, which she began only in 1987.

The same can be said of the remarkable Francie Larrieu Smith, 37, of Dallas.

Smith, once a track rival of Mary Decker Slaney, made her first of four Olympic teams in 1972. Nearly two decades later, she is the fastest U.S. marathoner of the year with a 2:28:01 at London, where she was runner-up to Panfil.

Larrieu Smith likely will be ranked No. 2 in the United States to Kim Jones, second in New York at 2:30:50 and fifth in Boston at 2:31:01. Both should be among the world's top 10.

That is far better than their U.S. male counterparts are doing.

The top U.S. man in New York was even further down in the standings than previously thought. It first was announced that the honor belonged to Mohamed Idris of Brooklyn, the 22nd finisher, but he turned out to be Egyptian. That left Gerry O'Hara of Manhattan, 29th overall, as the leading U.S. man.

Not since 1983, when Greg Meyer of Grand Rapids, Mich., won Boston, has a U.S. man won any of his country's Big Three marathons -- Boston, New York and Chicago. In those races this year, Ed Eyestone of Bountiful, Utah, was the only top-10 finisher, with a fifth in Chicago. Not since 1982 has a U.S. man ranked in the top 10.

In 46 significant open marathons worldwide this year, U.S. men have won just two. Paul Pilkington of Roy, Utah, won at Houston in 2:11:43 in January, and Dave Mora of Bloomington, Ind., won at the Goodwill Games in 2:14:43 in July.

The financial lure of running many shorter road races for profit rather than training several months for a marathon frequently is blamed for the decline. Yet in 1990, the top Mexican runners have dominated the U.S. road circuit, won four U.S. marathons with four different runners, had the winner and three other top-15 finishers in Chicago and had the runner-up and three other top-16 finishers in New York.

"Everyone thinks the African runners are the best, but the Mexicans are the strongest," said Salvador Garcia, winner at Long Beach and No. 2 in New York this year.

Of course, the Italians might argue over who is the No. 1 country, which is where we came in.

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