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Kipchoge defends marathon gold, cementing title as greatest ever

Kenya's Eliud Kipchoge celebrates after winning the men's marathon final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Sapporo on August 8, 2021. (Photo by Giuseppe CACACE / AFP) (Photo by GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images)
Kenya's Eliud Kipchoge celebrates after winning the men's marathon final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Sapporo on August 8, 2021. (Photo by Giuseppe CACACE / AFP) (Photo by GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images)

World record-holder Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya continued to prove that no human is limited Sunday in Sapporo, Japan, with a masterful defense of his Olympic marathon gold, conquering the 26.2-mile course in 2:08:38 to further establish himself as the greatest marathoner of all time.

The 36-year-old becomes just the third man in history to win two Olympic titles in the event — Ethiopia's Abebe Bikila captured gold at the 1960 Rome and 1964 Tokyo Games, and East Germany's Waldemar Cierpinski earned victories at the 1976 Montreal and boycotted 1980 Moscow Games.

In tough conditions, coincidently a hair hotter than in Tokyo from which the race was moved nearly two years ago to mitigate heat concerns, Dutchman Abdi Nageeye claimed silver in 2:09:58, while Belgian Bashir Abdi took bronze in 2:10:00. American Galen Rupp, bronze medalist in Rio, was eighth in 2:11:41. His teammates Jake Riley and Abdi Abdirahman, 44, were a respective 29th and 41st in 2:16:26 and 2:18:27.

The race was relatively slow at the start, with a large group crossing 5K in 15:17 and 10K in 30:53 – about 2:09 to 2:10 pace. Ethiopian Shura Kitata, the 2020 London champion, was an early drop. It didn't change much when they hit 15K, as the temperature increased from 79 to 81 degrees with a heat index of 85. They went through the half in 1:05:13, still on 2:10 pace.

With 27K down, the lead group finally decreased to just 12, with Kipchoge controlling the pace followed by Rupp, Abdi, Nageeye, Kipchoge's teammates Lawrence Cherono and Amos Kipruto and Tanzania's Alphonce Simbu. As the lead pack dwindled to eight at 30K in 1:32:31, Kipchoge dropped the hammer with a big break, and Rupp simultaneously dropped out.

By 35K, Kipchoge had opened up a 27-second lead, leaving everyone in the dust.

SEE MORE: Eliud Kipchoge shatters world record at 2018 Berlin Marathon

Kipchoge boasts an incredible eight major titles – four in London, three in Berlin, one in Chicago – and has two 5000m medals from previous Olympics in which he competed on the track: a Beijing silver and an Athens bronze. He failed to make Kenya's team for the 2012 London Games, and switched to marathon thereafter.

His 2018 Berlin crown was perhaps the most memorable of the bunch as he took down Kenyan Dennis Kimetto's four-year-old marathon world record of 2:02:57 by more than a minute, clocking 2:01:39. That result and his 2019 London Marathon win of 2:02:37 rank as the first- and third-best times of the leadup cycle to Tokyo since Rio.

SEE MORE: Eliud Kipchoge returns with airport marathon win

In October 2019, Kipchoge became the first person in history to break the elusive two-hour mark, running a non-world record eligible 1:59:40 in Vienna with a pace car and a team of pacers.

After a surprise, eighth-place finish at the 2020 London Marathon in 2:06:49, many questioned whether he'd still be a favorite heading into Tokyo, but he returned emphatically six months later to dominantly win the NN Mission Marathon in the Netherlands in 2:04:30.

Raised in Kapsisiwo, Kenya, by his mother, a nursery school teacher, Kipchoge has said he ran four times every day, about five to six kilometers, to and from primary school. For work after finishing school in 1999 he collected milk from local villagers and sold it in Kapsabet, about a 12-mile cycle from home. He saved for five months to buy his first pair of running shoes.

Kipchoge's coached by longtime mentor and 1992 Olympic steeplechase silver medalist Patrick Sang, and he's an avid reader. For him, running his life.

"I run to live longer and enjoy a healthier life. I always say: a run in the morning is like eating a fruit a day – it chases [the] doctor away," he said. "People ask me why I run. It is for life and to inspire the younger generation to love sport and live a happy and full life. I can’t imagine a life without running."