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Marathon puzzle -- why so slow, girls?
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Constantina Tomescu of Romania displays the Romanian national flag after taking women's marathon final at the National Stadium, also known as the Bird's Nest, during Beijing 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China, Aug. 17, 2008. Tomescu claimed the title of the event. [Xinhua] 

By David Ferguson

A women's marathon run it what seemed to be perfect conditions was won by Romania's Constantina Tomescu in a surprisingly slow time.

It might seem more than a little churlish to cast aspersions on a group of people who have just put themselves through the torture of an Olympic Marathon, but there is a genuine puzzle about the slowness of today's race, won by Romania's Constantina Tomescu in a time of 2'26:44, who nevertheless finished the race well ahead of the chasing athletes behind her.

This is the second-slowest marathon-winning time since the event was introduced to the Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984. Only Barcleona, won by Valentina Yegorova of the former Soviet Union in 2'32:41, was slower.

The result is all the more puzzling as conditions seemed perfect for the runners–cool weather with a hint of damp in the air and little breeze. But Tomescu's time was over five minutes slower than her own personal best of 2'21:30–as a point of reference, at the speed these athletes maintain that represents almost two kilometers in distance. No fewer than 28 of the 81 starters have a personal best lower than the eventual winning time.

Notwithstanding, sincere congratulations to all those who forced themselves to the finishing line, and also to those who didn't quite manage. That number includes Maria Xias Dimenes, a plucky runner from Eastern Timor whose previous personal best of 3'22:03 was more than an hour behind many of the best. Maria was already miles behind the field at the half-way stage, and sadly pulled out shortly afterwards -- perhaps not surprisingly, as she was running at a pace almost half-an-hour quicker than she had ever before achieved.

A special mention obviously to gold medal-winner Tomescu, Catherine Ndereba of Kenya who took silver, and China's bronze-winner Zhou Chunxiu. Also perhaps a quiet word on behalf of Britain’s Paula Radcliffe, whose Olympic torment continues. The world record-holder was the favorite for the Athens gold, but she dropped out of the race with 5km left to run. Her preparations for the Beijing event have been curtailed by injury. She battled to stay in touch with the second group, but was again forced to pull up within 6 or 7 km of the finish. This time, though, she forced herself to start again and dragged her way to the line although in obvious agony, seventeen minutes, or more than five kilometers, behind her world record time. Her effort was rewarded by a special cheer from the spectators in the stadium, who had watched her suffering on the screen.

Finally, a plea to the security authorities. Beijing should be one of the best cities in the world to watch a marathon. Its wide streets are crossed by dozens of pedestrian and cyclist bridges. There must be as many as a hundred of those on the marathon course, and they would provide an ideal vantage point for tens of thousands of spectators to get a perfect view of the race. Is there really any genuine security reason to drive all the public off these bridges just as the runners pass by?

(China.org.cn August 17, 2008)

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