To an eye gone weary in a global pandemic, just seeing him run alone might suffice, alone.
It seemed immaterial somehow that Eliud Kipchoge, the 36-year-old Kenyan world-record holder in that nutty old human pursuit, the marathon, would become just the third person to repeat as Olympic champion, following upon Abebe Bikila in 1960-64 and Waldemar Cierpinski in 1976-80. It seemed even more arcane than usual that his 2 hours 8 minutes 38 seconds and his win by 80 seconds would come wackily close to his win at Rio de Janeiro 2016 at 2:08:44 and by 70 seconds.
It’s his fourth Olympic medal, counting his bronze and silver in the 5,000 meters?
How wonderful, but get a look at that stride.
It’s Kenya’s second straight sweep of the women’s and men’s marathons, its front-running 15th medal counting both genders?
How swell, and how about that stride.
A marathon with its share of marathon carnage, in blustery 80-degree weather kinder than for the women Saturday, had wound down in this makeshift setting, this 1972 Winter Olympic city some 514 miles north of Tokyo, which the International Olympic Committee had chosen because Sapporo might hurl less heat. Kipchoge had run among others for about 18 miles, sometimes in a triangle of Kenyans, then had burst out alone. These hard Games had distilled to the beautiful loneliness and effortless motion of the man whose 2:01:39 in the 2018 Berlin Marathon reset the human standard for this routine act of madness.
“My mind was at peace,” Kipchoge said.
“Kipchoge’s Kipchoge,” bronze medalist Bashir Abdi said. “Nobody can go with him at that pace.”
“I wanted to create a space [a gap],” Kipchoge said, “to show the world that this is a beautiful race. I wanted to test my fitness; I wanted to test how I’m feeling. I wanted to show that we have hope in the future.”
So a keen journalist asked a pertinent question: “Do you suffer at all in a marathon?”
Kipchoge smiled behind his mask and said, “I suffer in training. I suffer, but you know, I enjoy running …
What enjoyment, then, as he reached the “tape,” the banner often shimmering too far up ahead in marathons. Along those last effortless strides after 26 miles and then some, he waved to his left and right, his yellow and blue bracelets kinetic on his wrists. He clapped his hands together once. He sort of thumped his heart. Then he crossed and smiled a smile that could vie with his stride for beauty.
“That smile is the happiness,” he said. “They say that to enjoy this world is to be happy. While you are happy, it helps you relax and enjoy the race.”
That was before he said, “Marathon is like life, and life is about challenges. On the road, there are potholes, big and small.”
He just makes the potholes seem pristine.
Behind him or, rather, more than behind him, a four-strong cluster of runners had their own, second race, settling silver and bronze in favor of two 32-year-old Somalia-born men, Abdi Nageeye of the Netherlands and Abdi of Belgium, two seconds apart from each other in 2:09:58 and 2:10:00. Lawrence Cherono of Kenya finished an aching two seconds behind Abdi in fourth. Ayad Lamdassem of Spain came 14 more seconds behind that in fifth.
Quite away from Kipchoge’s stride, Nageeye and Abdi had forged their own beauty, their sportsmanship complementing their shared heritage. “I was just telling him stay with us stay with us this last one” kilometer, Nageeye said, soon adding, “I knew if he stayed until the end, the last 200 meters, ‘Close your eyes and just sprint.’”
“I still think I’m dreaming,” Abdi said, soon adding, “We came from soccer and never dreamed of becoming an athlete, because in Somalia the only sport you see on TV or in the newspaper is soccer, so we didn’t know there was sport besides football or soccer.”
Behind them and their closest rivals lay the customary messes of a bonkers species. Seventy-six runners finished, but 30 did not. A wheelchair carried at least one through the interview area. The 23-year-old Brazilian Daniel Do Nascimento, up with the leaders an early spell, teetered over to a curb around the 16-mile mark and splayed on his back, medics attending. Galen Rupp, the 2016 bronze medalist from Oregon and the best American hope, finished eighth in 2:11:41 and departed his interview with halts almost aching just to watch, as a giant media throng surrounded the good-humored Suguru Osako of Japan, who placed sixth at age 30 and looks closer to 20.
“I just overheated a little bit, you know,” Rupp had just said, even as he couldn’t remember where. He had run for a while amid the three Kenyans, an exalted place to be even as Rupp said, “They’re humans. It’s not like they’re superhuman or anything like that, so you’ve got to compete against them. That’s always been my mentality, especially from a young age, and today’s no different. You know, you have to put yourself in contention, and it’s the only way I know how to run, and I had to do that here, it’s just unfortunately it wasn’t my day, and it just caught up to me a little bit the last seven miles.”
“The risk with a conservative race plan,” the 29th-place American Jacob Riley said, “is that people won’t come back, and some were coming back but not nearly enough, and then boy, I was getting water on myself, I was getting ice, I was cooling, and it just wasn’t enough, and then around 30K, like, just started taking its toll. … I never walked. I’m proud of that. I never walked.”
“The main thing,” said the 44-year-old, 41st-place American Abdi Abdirahman, who battled cramps, “was just stay on the course. I feel like dropping off so many times, but I thought, ‘This might be my last Olympics.’ So I say, you know what, I’m gonna toughen up, doesn’t matter what the time is, I’m gonna cross the finish line.”
He did so, and that was something, behind a winner who was really something, and two more medalists who were quite something, a trio that held a news conference of a soaring diplomacy. All three spoke of hoping to inspire youth, “to give hope to the next generation,” as Kipchoge said. All three extolled the Japanese people as Abdi told of respecting airport workers and traffic directors, and of feeling irked with a cranky knee during training here but changing his outlook with: “And then I told myself you have to give respect to the people who are trying to organize.” And the man who ran alone said, “Enjoyment of sport is next to perfection.”
He said that about a marathon, as if the joy in his strides could have carried these Olympics alone.