What's your preference in marathons? A race with the fastest times ever recorded or one so close the two leaders practically hit the tape Velcro-ed together? A pair of events an ocean apart - one in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, and the other in Boston - combined to provide both choices within the space of 24-plus hours. Marathoning has probably never delivered a better 1-2 punch than it did at the beginning of this week, when African runners served notice that they'll be hard to beat at the Seoul Olympics next fall.
On Sunday, Ethiopia's Belayneh Dinsamo bettered the previous world best time by 23 seconds, when he covered the 26 miles, 385 yards of a fast and flat Rotterdam course in two hours, 6 minutes, and 49 seconds. (There are no official world records in marathoning, since the race routes vary widely in topography, though not in distance).
``I'm not even tired,'' Dinsamo said after defending his title and breaking the old time barrier, which had stood for three years. Fellow African Ahmed Saleh of Djibouti, who finished second, also lowered the mark set by Carlos Lopes in the 1985 edition of this same competition.
Not surprisingly, news of these results had them buzzing in Boston as a field of about 6,700 official entrants toed the line at the Hopkinton town green. A sizeable contingent of Kenyan runners, using the Boston Marathon as that country's Olympic selection race, were told of Dinsamo's blazing time, not that there was much hope of equalling it on the hillier Boston course. But the incentive for matching heroics was planted.
And there to answer the call was Ibrahim Hussein, who dueled Tanzanian mighty mite Juma Ikangaa stride for stride, over Heartbreak Hill and dale, before outkicking his valiant rival right before the Back Bay finish line. His one-second margin on this cold, drizzly day was the narrowest in the 92-year history of this storied event, and his 2:08:43 time made him the first African to wear the victor's laurel wreath. The '78 and '82 men's races, decided by two seconds, were previously the closest.
``I like to make history,'' said the sparkling winner, who also became the first African champ at last November's New York City Marathon.
Portugal's Rosa Mota was not to be outdone in the impact department, as she underlined her consistent brilliance by becoming the first woman to officially repeat her Boston title (Roberta Gibb, 1966-68, and Sara Mae Berman, 1969-71, strung together unofficial victories in the pre-lib days).
Mota, who has now won her last five marathons, likes to tick off the miles with metronome-like pacing, and once again went unchallenged. Last year she won by more than four minutes, and this time she had nearly a five-minute cushion in winning $45,000 in cash and her second Mercedes Benz, with a clocking of 2:24:30.
While Mota, the '84 Olympic bronze medalist, was establishing herself as a chief contender for Seoul, one chief rival, Joan Benoit Samuelson, was doing Boston Marathon TV coverage, while another, Ingrid Kristiansen, was coming up well short in her effort to break the 2:20 mark in the London Marathon. The Norwegian star taped a list of checkpoint times to her arm, which if met, would have had her breaking the tape in 2:19:59. She won, but in a slow 2:25:41.
Samuelson, the reigning Olympic champion, is hoping to be in peak fitness for the United States Olympic marathon trials for women, which are being held May 1 in Pittsburgh. The American men, who probably wouldn't have been a factor in Boston, do battle for the three Olympic slots in Jersey City, N.J., on Sunday.
Boston wanted to be designated the US trials marathon, but couldn't reach an agreement with American track and field officials, who didn't want a race within a race. The Boston Marathon, however, has come off the ropes in recent years with the help of major corporate sponsorship from John Hancock Financial Services, which is spending millions to restore this old-timer to its former prestige.
The race is run on Patriot's Day, a traditional mid-April Massachusetts holiday, but whether the John Hancocks on the entry forms belong to American or foreign athletes isn't as important as getting the best field possible. And this year that meant looking overseas, especially to Africa, a reawakened distance-racing giant that fell into partial athletic eclipse around the time many African nations boycotted the 1976 and 1980 Olympics.
A full-fledged revival is now under way, however, and was strikingly evident at last month's world cross-country championships, where Kenyans and Ethiopians monopolized the top 10 spots.