Khannouchi can conquer classy field

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The Independent Online

One of the attractions at the Flora London Marathon Exhibition this year is a cut-out of the defending champion, Abdelkader El Mouaziz, crossing the line. As in the best fairground traditions, there is a hole where the face should be, enabling any interested party to picture themselves as a champion.

If times achieved told the whole story, the cut-out on display at next year's Exhibition should be of Khalid Khannouchi, El Mouaziz's fellow Moroccan, who became the first man to beat 2hr 6min for the distance last October when he won at Chicago.

Khannouchi's performances in his only three marathons to date - he has finished first, second then first in the Windy City - have established him as a superstar within the event.

But as he toes the line for the 20th London Marathon tomorrow morning the main question about his preparation will relate to his mind rather than his body. How much will Khannouchi have been affected by his protracted, and acrimonious quest to adopt US citizenship in time to run at the Sydney Olympics? The bookies do not seem overly concerned - they have made the 28-year-old 6-5 favourite despite the presence of a field which, apart from the defending champion, includes the double winner Antonio Pinto, the European champion Stefano Baldini, the Kenyans William Kiplagat and Japhet Kosgei, and three hugely talented South Africans in Gert Thys, fourth on the all-time list, the Olympic champion Josiah Thugwane and Hendrick Ramaala, who makes his debut after twice finishing silver medallist in the World Half Marathon championship.

If Khannouchi does operate at less than peak efficiency, however, it may well be El Mouaziz who finds him out. After narrowly failing to run away from the field in 1998, the Moroccan succeeded last year and he has a lean and hungry look as he seeks to hang on to his title. And, unlike a number of his rivals, he is already free of worry over Olympic selection having secured his place already.

Like El Mouaziz, who is 7-1 to win, the defending women's champion Joyce Chepchumba also finds herself down the betting, thanks to the presence of her friend and housemate, Tegla Loroupe, evens favourite in what will be her first London race.

On the same day Chepchumba collected a world record bonus for a women-only race from the London organisers, Loroupe ran two minutes faster in the mixed race in Rotterdam. Now the two Kenyans, who train together for half the year in Germany, will face each other for the first time in a marathon, and Chepchumba's record of 2:23.22 seems bound to be broken.

There will be no suggestion of a two-horse race, however, given the presence of Mexico's runner-up of last year, Adriana Fernandez, Romania's world bronze medallist Lidia Simon - who beat Loroupe in Osaka last year - and the debutant Fernanda Ribeiro, the 1996 Olympic 10,000m champion who is seeking to emulate the marathon feats of her fellow Portuguese runners, Rosa Mota and Manuela Machado.

Ribeiro's predecessor as Olympic 10,000m champion, Derartu Tulu, also has the potential to make an impact on the race in what will be her third marathon, but the first for which she has trained intensively.

Following injuries to Liz McColgan and Jon Brown, and the sadly premature retirement of Richard Nerurkar, no Briton looks capable of making an impact on the leading places in either race. But there will be a fascinating race-within-a-race between three debutants, Keith Cullen, Glyn Tromans and Mark Steinle, as they seek to secure an Olympic place by finishing as top Briton inside the qualifying time of 2hr 14min.