There is plenty of controversy surrounding the London Marathon on Sunday. Britain's Paula Radcliffe is the fastest woman in the world, and she will defend her title. But, Catherine Ndereba of Kenya, the former world number-one, has been critical of the way the race is being run.
The core of the argument, as far as Catherine Ndereba is concerned, is that the race organizers have introduced men as pacemakers into the women's race. London continues to hold the women's start 45 minutes before the men's, giving the women their own stage, especially important for the worldwide television coverage.
The male pacemakers are there because Paula Radcliffe, having smashed Ndereba's world best in Chicago last year, initially wanted to run in the men's race, hoping to be spurred on to run even faster. Now that the organizers would not allow, so they produced a compromise, there should be eight male pacers, two each scheduled to run allotted times among the women's field. You can be sure the leading two men will have a target of two hours, 16 minutes, which Paula Radcliffe certainly looks capable of running.
None of this leaves the Kenyan Catherine Ndereba, twice a winner in Chicago and Boston, happy. "I don't want [the male pacemakers] there," she said. "The fact is, this race used to be a women's only race. So that's the experience I wanted to have. But unfortunately, I won't have it, because the race is kind of like a mixed race, and for the eight marathons that I've run, in fact all of them were mixed races. So, I was hoping to get a chance to run a women's only race."
Radcliffe's world best is two hours, 17 minutes, 18 seconds. Ndereba is number-two in the rankings, but a minute-and-a-half slower. The race is by no means between these two only. Derartu Tulu, Ethiopia's double Olympic champion at 10,000 meters, won here two years ago, and she finds the London course to her liking. "This is my favorite race because I like London. Also, I like the course, too. That is why I've come to London again. This is my fourth time running London," she said.
There is further African interest in Susan Chepkemei of Kenya, plus someone who has taken a leaf out of the African notebook in distance running, Deena Drossin of the United States. Hard work and talent gave her a second-place in last month's World Cross-Country Championships in Lausanne, Switzerland. And one day, Drossin might get close to two hours, 20 minutes.
For once, the men's race might be overshadowed, but what a high class field it is, despite illness forcing the absence of the American world record holder Khalid Khannouchi. Paul Tergat of Kenya, runner-up to Khannouchi a year ago in London, returns. So does the former champion Abdelkader El Mouaziz of Morocco for his sixth London Marathon.
The presence of the Olympic and world champion Gezahegne Abera of Ethiopia is further proof of London's pedigree. But the man to watch could well be Raymond Kipkoech. The Kenyan broke through to win Berlin last September in two hours, six minutes, and breaking a golden rule in the bargain: wearing new shoes for a race.