London Marathon: Double trouble-shooters

Simon Turnbull explains how the Portuguese can win at monopoly
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The Independent Online
THERE WAS a time when Britannia ruled the waves of foot-sloggers who annually sweep through the streets of England's capital. Four of the first five London Marathons were won by home runners: Hugh Jones in 1982, Mike Gratton in 1983, Charlie Spedding in 1984 and Steve Jones in 1985. Since then, however, there has been more unfulfilled hope than actually glory for the best of Britain's Marathon Men. Only Allister Hutton, in 1990, and Eamonn Martin, in 1993, have repelled the challenge of the overseas invaders.

Jon Brown has been an overseas resident himself for 10 years now, having studied at Iowa State University, lived in Germany, and settled in Vancouver. As a South Yorkshireman, though, and a member of Sheffield Athletics Club, he will carry Britain's hopes in the 19th London Marathon today. He will do so warily, given the unprecedented strength in depth of the international entry for this year's race, and the weaknesses he has found within himself in two attempts to master the marathon.

Ninth in Chicago two years ago, in 2hr 10min 13sec, and eighth in London last year, in 2:11:11, Brown arrived in England last week admitting: "I am still not comfortable with the marathon. I haven't got my head round the distance."

Having eclipsed Martin's British 10,000m record last summer and finished eighth in the world cross country championships three weeks ago, however, the 28-year-old has the pedigree to break through the 2hr 10min barrier with a vengeance. He will need to today if he is to have any hope of finishing in the frame. Nine entrants have run 2:08:07 or quicker.

The quickest is Ronaldo Da Costa, who broke Belanyeh Dinsamo's 10-year- old world record last September, clocking 2:06:05 in Berlin. But Abel Anton will start as the man to beat. The Spaniard's recent form has not been great, but he is a marathon racer par excellence, as he showed with his victories in the world championships two years ago and in London last year. Such is the wealth of talent in the 1999 Flora London Marathon, however, that picking out a clear favourite is an impossible task.

There are potential winners from all corners of the globe: Da Costa from Brazil; Josia Thugwane, the Olympic champion from South Africa; Lee Bong- ju, the Olympic silver medallist from Korea; Abdelkadr El Mouaziz from Morocco, last year's surprise runner-up; and Josephat Kiprono from Kenya, who was second in Berlin last year. And Anton is not the only leading contender from Europe. Antonio Pinto, the European 10,000m champion from Portugal, will fancy his chances of a third London win, having finished three minutes ahead of both Anton and Da Costa in the Lisbon half-marathon last month. Domingos Castro, the 1987 world championship 5,000m silver medallist and 1997 Rotterdam Marathon winner, is another pedigree Portuguese challenger.

It is a pity for Portugal, and for the race, that a knee injury has forced Fernanda Ribeiro to postpone her eagerly awaited marathon debut. There were great expectations of the woman whose blistering turn of speed has won her a hat-trick of Olympic, world and European 10,000m titles and who first made her name as an 11-year-old, finishing four seconds behind Rosa Mota in a half-marathon.

The women's field, however, includes the doughty Sporting Lisbon runner Manuela Mach-ado, whose championship victories have included two European successes and one world triumph. If she grinds down the opposition with her front-running style and either Pinto or Castro emerges victorious from the men's pack, there could be the biggest flood of Portuguese tears in London, though joyous this time, since Eusebio and his team-mates exited the 1966 World Cup finals at the semi-final stage.

Only one of the 18 London Marathons to date has produced winners of the men's and women's races from the same country. That was in 1982, when Joyce Smith and Hugh Jones celebrated a famous home double. Alas for Britain, the domestic success of Smith and Jones is unlikely to be matched for some time.