The second weekend in February of next year got a lot more interesting on Thursday, as Athletics Kenya announced that they’ll hold its first ever Olympic Trials for the marathon on February 14 at a yet-to-be-determined venue. The U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon will take place on Feb. 13 in Los Angeles, the day before the Los Angeles Marathon. At both Trials events, the top-3 male and female finishers will represent their respective countries at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
“This is a new policy, that the best way to select the marathon team is to hold a national trial early enough for Rio,” Athletics Kenya director of competitions David Okeyo told The Times of India. “The selected athletes must run their last marathon events in February.”
Athletics Kenya has February 14 listed on their website’s event calendar as the date for the “Marathon Trials for Team Kenya to RIO” but no further information has been posted. The staging of a Trials race to select their Olympic marathon team is huge deviation from the past practices of Athletics Kenya, whose officials would handpick the athletes based on a set of ambiguous, constantly changing criteria. Prior to 2012, Athletics Kenya had traditionally used the Boston and London marathons as unofficial selection races to determine who would represent the country at the Olympic Games and world championships, but chairman Isaiah Kiplagat deviated from that practice in the lead-up to the London Games. Geoffrey Mutai was left off the Kenyan Olympic team in 2012—presumedly for dropping out of the 2012 Boston Marathon due to heat issues—despite winning both the 2011 Boston and New York City marathons in record time, as was Patrick Makau, the world-record holder at the time who dropped out of the 2012 London Marathon. Wilson Kipsang, the 2012 London Marathon champion, was named to the team, along with world champion Abel Kirui and 25,000m and 30,000m world-record holder Moses Mosop, who finished second to Mutai in his marathon debut at Boston in 2011.
“I did not expect to be left out of the team,” Mutai told All Africa in 2012. “What is more painful is that after being selected in the initial team of six, I was not informed again of the decision to leave me and I only learnt of it through the media.”
Lack of depth has never been an issue for Kenya in the marathon, but Athletics Kenya officials have become increasingly disappointed with the country’s marathon performances at global championships. Heading into the London Games, Kenyans dominated World Marathon Majors Series races and posted many of the world’s leading times on both the men’s and women’s sides. At the 2012 Olympic Marathon, Kirui and Kipsang took silver and bronze, respectively, while Emmanual Mutai—who was originally not named to the team but replaced the injured Mosop—finished a disappointing 17th. On the women’s side, Priscah Jeptoo claimed silver, two-time London Marathon champion Mary Keitany finished fourth and multiple world champion Edna Kiplagat crossed in 20th place.
At the recent world championships in Beijing, Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto—the current world-record holder—both dropped out of the men’s marathon. Mark Korir was Kenya’s only male finisher, crossing the finish line in 22nd place. Helah Kiprop took silver for Kenya on the women’s side, while Jemima Sumgong and Edna Kiplagat finished fourth and fifth, respectively.
“We saw the results in the 2012 London Olympics, and both the 2013 and 2015 world championships in Moscow and Beijing—which were not very satisfactory for a nation that has dominated top marathon races in the world,” Okeyo said.