The men's field in Monday's 92d Boston Marathon is so full of talented runners that few experts are willing to predict the outcome with any confidence.
The winner could be reigning European champion Gelindo Bordin of Italy. Or the world's top-ranked marathoner in 1986, Juma Ikangaa of Tanzania.Or two-time Boston champion Geoff Smith of England. Or two-time New York champion Orlando Pizzolato of Italy. Or two-time America's Marathon/Chicago champion Steve Jones of Wales. Or two-time Honolulu champion Ibrahim Hussein of Kenya, who has the thing figured.
"Stick with me," Hussein said. "I make history."
Hussein, 29, last fall became the first African to win the New York Marathon. Monday, the Nandi tribesman from Tilalwa will be trying to be the first to win the Boston Marathon.
Such an achievement would be further proof that Kenyan distance running has reemerged triumphant from the sad history of two Olympic boycotts that doomed its greatest runner, Henry Rono, to loss of far more than a sporting chance.
"All of a sudden, we didn't have any heroes to motivate us," Hussein said. "Many young people were discouraged and gave up."
For hundreds of years, the migrating tribes who would finally settle in Kenya's southwest highlands had the simplest of motivations to run. It was, until the past few decades, the primary mode of transportation in a land where much of the tribal population has lived at 5,000 feet or more above sea level.
Such natural habits gave Kenyan runners the endurance advantages provided by altitude training. The world was simply unaware of these splendid East African athletes until Olympic movement in 1955.
Kenya, a former British colony that gained independence in 1963, first sent athletes to the Olympics in 1956. Its first track medal was a bronze in the 800 meters in 1964.
Four years later at the 7,400-foot altitude of Mexico City, Kip Keino led the Kenyans into worldwide prominence by winning an Olympic gold medal in the 1,500 meters and a silver in the 5,000. He and his countrymen finished with eight track medals (three gold), the second-highest total of any men's track team in the Games.
At 1972 in Munich, West Germany, Keino won another gold and silver as the Kenyans proved they could run equally well in the thicker air of lower altitudes. Their six medals were fourth among men's teams.
On the eve of the 1976 Games, when Mike Boit was ready to add to that total, Kenya joined the black African boycott in protest of New Zealand's sporting relations with South Africa. In 1980, when Rono might have won three gold medals, Kenya joined its ally, the United States, in a boycott of the Moscow Games over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Boit, deeply hurt but not crushed, has gone on to become a prominent coach. Rono, who simultaneously held world records in three Olympic events, drifted into despair unemployment, alcoholism, finally an arrest for passing bad checks in what turned out to be a case of mistaken identity.
"Not only did it hurt those athletes, but it hurt the ones coming behind them," said Sam Sitonik, one of the 16 Kenyans running in the Boston Marathon.
The consecutive boycotts wounded the Kenyan track program badly. At the 1983 World Championships, these once proud runners could manage no better than a seventh place in the steeplechase.
The revival was slow. Kenya won gold and bronze medals at the 1984 Olympics (although the bronze was awarded in the 10,000 when the silver medalist was disqualified for drug use).
But it wasn't until the second World Championships of track and field, last summer in Rome, that the recovery was considered complete. In that meet, Kenyan men won the 800 (Billy Konchellah) and 10,000 meters (Paul Kipkoech) and the marathon (Douglas Wakihuru).