RIO DE JANEIRO – Jemima Jelagat Sumgong won Kenya’s first women’s Olympic marathon title on Sunday, catching Eunice Jepkirui Kirwa just as the runners approached the final stretch down Rio’s famous Sambodrome and holding on for gold.
Sumgong finished in 2 hours, 24 minutes, 4 seconds, just under a minute off the Olympic record, with Kirwa crossing nine seconds behind to earn Bahrain its second ever Olympic medal and Ethiopia’s Mare Dibaba in third a further 17 seconds back.
Japan had two top-20 finishers, with Kayoko Fukushi, 34, the best at 14th (2:29.53) and Tomomi Tanaka in 19th (2:31.12).
Sumgong sat inconspicuously in the leading pack all race, but was able to stick with Kirwa when she made the decisive burst that split the group at the 35-kilometer mark.
With just the three eventual medalists left, it was Dibaba who cracked first, falling off the top two after two and a quarter hours at the front.
At the 1-km marker it was clear Sumgong had it, and she gradually pulled away to win her first Olympic medal.
“I was never worried that I’d lose this,” said Sumgong, who won Kenya’s first gold of Rio 2016. “At 40 km I knew the gold was mine.”
“At 35 km I noticed that my other two teammates had dropped off and that gave me the motivation to carry on. At 40 km I saw there were three of us but I knew whatever happened I couldn’t lose the gold and then I knew I was on the way to history.”
Fukushi — whose 14th is one place better than Ryoko Kizaki’s finish in London but well off the glory days of Japanese women’s marathon in the early 2000s — said she gave it her all, but the heat made things difficult.
“It was seriously tough,” she said. “It was hot, but many things about it were too tough. Because I was aiming for a gold medal, I could do my best right to the end.
“I believe I’ve never tried this hard before. It has been a special time.
“The marathon is tough, the whole process to get here, the race itself, but it’s definitely worth it, to run the marathon at the Olympics.”