Six years on, the top British runner, Jon Brown, faces an almost impossible task as he seeks to bring off another home victory. It is hard to see how the organisers of this year's Flora London Marathon could have done a better job in attracting the event's elite. Towing the line in Shooters Hill Road at 9.30 am will be the Olympic Champion, Josiah Thugwane of South Africa, Brazil's Ronaldo Da Costa, who set a world best of 2:06:05 in winning last September's Berlin race, and the world champion, Abel Anton of Spain, who is defending his title.
Add to those aspirants the European 10,000 metres champion Antonio Pinto of Portugal, winner of this event in 1992 and 1997, Lee Bong-Ju of South Korea, lost the 1996 Olympic title to Thugwane by just three seconds, and Josephat Kiprono of Kenya, who has a best of 2:07:27 to his name.
No wonder Brown is back down at 33-1 with the bookies. The 28-year-old Vancouver-based runner is hanging on to his own theory that when any top class field is convened - and he likens this one to the Olympics in terms of quality - only 50 per cent of those present run to form. But even if that prediction proves correct, Brown - whose outspoken comments about the illegal use of the blood-booster EPO in distance running provoked an angry reaction from Pinto earlier this week - has little chance of ending Britain's wait. However, his eighth place in last month's World Cross Country Championships at Belfast offered impressive evidence of his form, and he looked certain to improve on his best London placing of eighth, his position last year, and best time of 2:10:13.
It is make or break time for Brown. "If I don't feel I can be competitive here there is no point in going on to run the Olympic Marathon in Sydney next year, " he said. "So this could be my last marathon for a while."
Ronaldo Da Costa is the bookmakers' favourite although his manager, Luis Felipe Posso, claims that he has not trained with sufficient concentration after the achievement which made him a household name in his soccer-crazy homeland.
Thugwane's recent record has been fitful - he dropped out of last year's London race and the subsequent New York event with injury. But Pinto, who put together an outstanding track season last year at the age of 32, looks capable of securing a third title. Anton, too, reports himself in ideal shape for the race - assuming he is not distracted by the events of this week, when his wife gave birth to their first child by caesarean section.
The women's race has an open look in the absence of the 1996 winner, Liz McColgan, who is expecting her second child, and Catherina McKiernan of Ireland, last year's champion, who withdrew from the defence of her title last month because of an Achilles tendon problem. Earlier this week the women's race lost another potentially fascinating element when Fernanda Riberio, Portugal's Olympic 10,000m champion pulled out of what would have been her debut at the distance with a knee injury.
McColgan's opinion - which is likely to be as good as anyone's - is that Joyce Chepchumba of Kenya, who beat her to the 1997 title by just one second looks the most likely winner. The bookmakers agree. They had Chepchumba at 4-6 for a second London title with Portugal's European Champion, Manuela Machado, at 4-1, and Elana Meyer of South Africa, seeking her first big title after five years in the Marathon ranks, at 5-1.
Among the others who might feature are South Korea's 21-year-old national record holder, Kwon Eun-Ju, who was ranked seventh in the world last year, and Mexico's Adriana Fernandez, who led for much of last year's London race before finishing seventh, and went on to take second place in last year's New York Marathon in 2: 26:33.
Also in the frame is Nicole Carroll, a 27-year-old Queenslander who took up running in preference to a promising tennis career. She had established herself in the same national junior squad as Pat Rafter.
Chepchumba, who made her mark in top class marathon running when she finished as runner-up to McColgan in London three years ago, added another major title last year when she won in Chicago. Married with a son, she lives in Germany, where her training partners include Tegla Loroupe, the Kenyan who established an all time women's best of 2: 20:47 at last year's Rotterdam marathon, where she was paced throughout by male runners.
Many observers believed this broached the spirit of marathon running, and the London organisers have taken the lead in espousing the cause of women only races and thereby made the $125,000 (pounds 75,000) bonus for a world best considerably easier to achieve. They have discounted the top 11 marks in the all-time women's list, because 10 of them were achieved in mixed races where women could benefit from being paced by runners of the opposite sex. The other invalid performance, in London's eyes, was the 2:21:46 recorded by Naoko Takahashi in winning last year's Bangkok marathon, because the race was point-to-point rather than a loop, and thus offered runners potential advantages in terms of gradient and prevailing wind.
Thus there is a jackpot on offer to the runner who can break the time of 2:23:24 set by Romania's Lidia Simon earlier this year.
Despite the gloomy weather forecasts for tomorrow, it's a target worth shooting for.Reuse content