Following Kipchoge’s Olympic marathon win I tweeted that I thought Kipchoge could now stake a claim to the best in any sport.
Am I delusional? Right, wrong. biased by my love of running? Likely all of the above to try to make a comparison and claim that is impossible to be right or wrong about. But for the sake of argument, let’s look at why Kipchoge may be the greatest in history.
First, Kipchoge’s stats and accolades. His marathon career is unprecedented. He’s won 13 of 15 marathons he’s entered, plus won and put up insane times in the two exhibition marathons he’s raced. His only two losses? His 2nd marathon ever, in Berlin, where he lost to then World Record Holder Wilson Kipsang…who eventually got a 4-year ban for missing anti-doping tests. His 2nd loss was during the COVID era where he struggled at the London marathon. So in reality, he’s had one bad marathon out of 17 entered.
During that time frame, he’s won at the biggest marathons against some of the greatest fields ever assembled. He’s set the world record, he’s run under 2 hours in a contrived exhibition. He’s won two Olympic golds in tactical races. The man just wins.
And this is the marathon we’re talking about. An over 2-hour race (mostly) where the options for ‘failure’ are staggering. From pushing the training too hard to cramping to fueling, to muscle fatigue, to injury, to just plain mental fatigue. The marathon is not like a basketball game, if you end up being a little off, or your stomach just decides not to absorb fluids well that day, you are done for.
9 years of domination in the marathon is unprecedented. It just doesn’t happen. Not by Paula Radcliffe who was minutes faster than her competitors. Not by Brigid Kosgei who set a ridiculous record. Not by any man in history since marathoning began. The closest comparison is Abibi Bikila who won the 1960 and 64 and 12 of the 16 marathons he competed in. But that was in the 1960s before the running boom and the African running invasion.
In the history of Olympic marathoning, there have only been three athletes who have even dominated long enough to win two Olympic golds, Kipchoge, Bikila, and Waldemer Cierpinski (in 1976 and 80). Cierpinski is widely suspected of doping, as he was part of the East German machine that utilized state-sponsored doping. That’s it. In over 100 years of marathoning, no one dominates that long, especially not in the modern era.
The marathon is not easy to dominate. No sport is ‘easy’ to dominate, but others throughout history have multiple individuals who go through a period of 5+ years of being the best. In Golf, you have Woods and Jack Nicklaus. In Swimming, you have Phelps and Ledecky, among others.
In the marathon, Kipchoge has dominated for 9 years. That on its own is worth GOAT status, but that’s only half the story…
The forgotten track years
In 2003, Eliud Kipchoge shocked the running world by winning the world championships in the 5k. That was 18 years ago. In the 2004 Olympics he took bronze behind Hicham El Guerrouj and Kenenisa Bekele. In the 2008 Olympics he took silver behind Bekele.
For the uninformed, Kenenisa Bekele is known as arguably now, the 2nd greatest distance runner in history, behind Kipchoge. From 2003 to 2009 he was nearly unstoppable. In 2004, Gold in the 10k, silver in the 5k. In 2008, Gold in both. From 2003 to 2009, he won 5 track championships. In cross-country from 2002 to 2008 he won 11 world cross-country championships. He also had the 5k and 10k world record.
Hicham El Guerrouj still holds the 1,500 and mile world record. He was the double Olympic champion in the 1,500 and 5k in 2004 and is widely regarded as the best miler in history.
So on the track, as a youngster, Kipchoge’s Olympic bronze and silver medals came only because he lost to two of history’s giants in their events in the prime of their domination. It’s as if Kipchoge had to go up against Jordan and Lebron in their prime, in an event that is about 10 times shorter than what turned out to be his primary event.
But what about other sports?
There are a slew of candidates. Carl Lewis, Usain Bolt, Edwin Moses on the track. And off it, you have Tiger Woods, Phelps, Federer, Ruth, Joe Louis, and in other sports the 3x Gold medalist of Greco-roman wrestling (Aleksandr Karelin) or as suggested on Twitter, the cricket Donald Bradman who dominated in the 1930s.
There’s no way to compare these greats. But here’s my case for why Kipchoge edges ahead potentially. And it all comes down to the sport.
On twitter, someone suggested a fabulous athlete who dominated wheelchair tennis. Yes, this person dominated and deserves all praise, but how many people play wheelchair tennis? (This isn’t to put down her accomplishments, they are fantastic, but for this argument, if you’re dominating, we have to consider the depth of talent in the sport you are dominating.)
One of the questions we have to ask is, are the most talented athletes for that sport, likely playing it and making it to competing at the highest level?
I’m not making this argument to put down any athlete, but let’s take skiing as an example. Phenomenal athletes and sport. But how confident are we that the most talented skiiers actually take up skiing? Skiing requites heavy talent identification because there’s a higher barrier to entry (having snow and equipment). Your talent pool is naturally smaller. To a lesser degree, the same is true with swimming. Do you have access to a swimming pool? That’s not to disparage the sport, it’s just a reality.
The same could be true of distance running in the 1940s. There was no East African presence. Am I sure the 10k runner in the world in the late ’40s was Emil Zatopek. I’m not. Even though he was dominant, history tells us that there was probably some young man in Kenya or Ethiopia running to school who didn’t know what track was and had never trained. The same could be true of the NBA in the 70s. With what we know now of phenomenal foreign players currently in the league, are we sure the best of the best wasn’t off doing something else? No.
Running is a global sport. The barrier to entry is super low. You don’t even need shoes. Secondly, you don’t need special equipment, stadium, or even to officially compete. The beauty of running is that you don’t need to show up to a tryout or have yourself evaluated to find out if you are good. Just about every boy or girl on the planet finds out if they have a natural proclivity towards running and endurance when they are growing up. Are you faster than your friends? Do you get out of breathe less when playing with friends?
It’s much easier to find out if you have a talent for endurance. The same could be said for a talent for speed, which is why sprinting has a low barrier for entry as well.
But there’s one more factor that matters in this idea of whether or not the best talent-wise are the ones competing in the sport at the highest level. If you’re good at the sport do you have other options?
If I’m the fastest sprinter, those skills translate. They become great football wide receivers, or excellent rugby or soccer players. It’s why every year in the US, we have some of the best track talents choose other sports. Tyreek Hill chose football, for example. Would he have become Bolt? Doubtful, but he obviously had the potential to be world-class. It’s not just the 100m, think of NFL QB Robert Griffin, III. He’s 5th all-time on the high school 300m hurdles performance list. Sitting right behind him in 6th, 2005 world champion Bershawn Jackson. In 7th on the HS list, double Olympic gold medalist in the 400m hurdles, Kerron Clement.
Would RG3 reached similar accolades as Clement? Maybe not, it’s impossible to know, but that’s the point. We have no idea. We lost one of the best talents in the 400m hurdles to another sport.
Especially, when we consider more niche sports like wrestling, we have to ask, did they dominate because some of the best talents never found that sport, or chose another sport. Take Greco-roman star Karelin for example. What’s it take to be a great wrestler? Incredible strength, power, and agility. In his prime, Karelin was 6ft 3in and 280 pounds of muscle. Now, think of other sports where that might translate? That combination of agility, size, and strength represents the perfect defensive end. Lose a few pounds and you’ve got a potentially great linebacker. In America are our potential greco-Roman wrestling medalist playing football? There’s certainly a strong likelihood that sport is losing some talent to the more lucrative and popular one.
Again, the point isn’t to disparage athletes in such sports. But if we’re considering the greatest of all time, we have to consider, are they going up against the likely best of the best in the world? Or is the talent pool slightly diluted because of either barrier to entry, lack of participation of the sport in a country (i.e. you see this in softball or baseball or cricket), or because their talent translates to other sports.
Now, consider long-distance running. What other sport is someone with an unworldly cardiovascular system who is all of 5ft 6inches and 115 pounds going to do?
If you’re blanking on where that talent could easily translate, that’s everything you need to know. Maybe a slightly taller miler could be a soccer player or cyclists, but the ease of translating to another sport is striking.
In running, it’s easy to naturally figure out if you have talent towards it. Almost every child on the planet figures this out. It’s easy to take up running competitively (global sport, opportunities to race on track, road, etc. nearly everywhere). And if you have a propensity towards talent in distance running, you most likely are going to end up being a distance runner, because you aren’t going to be great at any other sport. Your skills don’t translate naturally to a variety of sports like pure size, strength, and speed might.
It might seem blasphemous, but the likelihood that Tom Brady (or whoever you choose) is the best quarterback walking the face is much lower than the likelihood Kipchoge is the best runner currently walking the planet. In this case, the majority of the world will never even know their innate talent to throw a football. Nearly everyone finds out if they can run fast and long or not. That doesn’t mean we discount Brady’s success. It just means we appreciate the global dominance in a truly global sport.
The argument is impossible to solve. You could pick Lewis or Bolt or Phelps or the 1930’s cricketer every Australian goes on and on about, and you could make a legitimate case. But my intention isn’t actually to solve it. It’s just to show others how incredibly difficult Kipchoge’s reign at the top of the marathon field is. Appreciate it while you can.