To answer this difficult question, we have checked historical records and considered the following marathons and achievements:
- World-record (WR) performances.
- Olympic Games and World Athletics Championships marathons: first 5 places.
- World Marathon Majors Series, comprising Boston, Chicago, New York, London, Berlin and Tokyo: first 3 positions.
Although the Majors Series only started per se in 2006 we have considered all available results.
For Kenya, 5 different runners have broken the WR, all of them in the Berlin Marathon: Paul Tergat (2003), Patrick Musyoki (2011), Wilson Kipsang (2013), Dennis Kimetto (2014) and Eliud Kipchoge (2018).
For Ethiopia, Abebe Bikila did it twice, to win the gold medal in the Olympics of Rome 1960 and Tokyo 1964, while Haile Gebrselassie did it consecutively in the Berlin Marathons of 2007 and 2008. Additionally, Belayneh Dinsamo broke the WR in Rotterdam in 1988.
Both countries have broken the WR 5 times: TIE
Kenya has won two Olympic gold medals: Samuel Wanjiru in Beijing 2008 and Eliud Kipchoge in Rio 2016. There also 3 silvers, 2 bronzes and a 5th place.
As mentioned previously, Ethiopia won the Olympics of Rome 1960 and Tokyo 1964 with Abebe Bikila. In 1968 Ethiopia got a third consecutive victory with Mamo Wolde in Mexico 1968. Ethiopia´s latest victory was with Gezahegne Abera in Sydney 2000. Additionally, they have 1 silver, 2 bronzes and a 4th place.
Although both countries have been very successful at Olympic level: Ethiopia WINS in this section.
Kenya has won the title in 5 occasions, with Ethiopia winning it only in 2. In total numbers Kenya added 3 silvers, 1 bronze and 1 5th place, while Ethiopia added 5 silvers, 3 bronzes and 3 4th places.
Considering only victories, Kenya is ahead, although Ethiopia compensates considering its results globally. We consider it a TIE.
WORLD MARATHON MAJORS
It is in this section that there is the biggest difference of them all.
Kenya has won 94 Majors since its first victory in 1983, with a total of 253 podium positions. And the impressive numbers don´t finish here. Since 1987 a Kenyan athlete has won at least one of the Marathon Majors every year. Furthermore, in 2007, 2014 and 2017, Kenya won 5 of the 6 annual Majors. In the 40 years going from 1981 to 2020 there has been 206 Major Marathons: Kenya has won a 45.6% of them. His best athlete in this section has been Eliud Kipchoge, winning by himself a total of 7 Majors, and breaking the WR in Berlin 2018.
Ethiopia has won a “mere” total of 24 Majors. The best athlete in these events has been Haile Gebrselassie, winner of 4 consecutive editions of the Berlin Marathon between 2006 and 2009, breaking twice the WR.
Winner in this section: Kenya WINS.
OVERALL RESULT MEN
Despite the Olympic advantage of Ethiopia, and because of the massive difference in the World Marathon Majors section, KENYA would be the WINNER of this marathon duel in male category.
Kenya has broken the WR in 4 occasions: Tegla Loroupe did it twice (1998 and 1999), Catherine Ndereba (2001) and Brigid Kosgei (2019).
No Ethiopian woman has broken the WR yet.
Kenya WINS clearly this section.
Women´s marathon only entered the Olympics in Los Angeles 1984. Both countries have won one Olympic title: Tiki Gelana did so for Ethiopia in London 2012 while Jemima Sumgong did the same for Kenya in Rio 2016.
Kenya also got 3 silver medals (Catherine Ndereba in 2004 and 2008, and Priscah Jeptoo in 2012) for 0 of Ethiopia. They have similar 3rd and 4th places, with Kenya having a 5th place.
Although tied in victories, due to the number of top 5 positions, Kenya WINS.
Kenya has won 5 titles. Catherine Ndereba (2003 and 2007) and Edna Kiplagat (2011 and 2013) did it twice, while Ruth Chepngetich won the last title in 2019.
Ethiopia has won only 1 world title: Mare Dibaba in 2015.
Additionally, Kenya could count also with 4 silver medals against 0 for Ethiopia-
Kenya WINS clearly this section also.
WORLD MARATHON MAJORS
Not as markedly as with the men but there are also important differences in this section.
Kenya has won 53 Majors since its first victory in 1994 and occupied the podium 144 times. The country has had many top athletes over the years: Mary Keitany has 7 victories until now, the same number of triumphs than Eliud Kipchoge. We could also highlight Catherine Ndereba with 6 victories and Joyce Chepchumba with 5. Kenya has won a 25.7% of the Marathon Majors from 1981, but considering only the last 25 years, from 1995 to 2020, the percentage of Kenyan victories is 38.4% (as there were no many Kenyan women participating previously).
Meanwhile Ethiopia has won 35 Majors in women, for a total of 99 podium positions. The best athletes in these events are Aberu Kebede, with 4 victories, and Fatuma Roba with 3. It looks that Ethiopian women has been less consistent in these Majors over the years.
Winner in this section: Kenya WINS.
OVERALL RESULT WOMEN
With more difference than in the men´s marathon, Kenyan women rules over her neighbours from Ethiopia, dominating in every marathon section.
KENYA would be the WINNER of this marathon duel in female category.
Despite the highest population of Ethiopia when compared to Kenya, and the big names of some well-known Ethiopian athletes, Kenya wins in the comparison at both, men and women levels.
Some Ethiopian figures such as Abebe Bikila and Mamo Wolde competed in a time where many athletes uniquely focused on Olympic events, taking place every 4 years.
Additionally, more recent runners such as Haile Gebreselassie or Kenenisa Bekele, or even Eliud Kipchoge, only moved to the marathon distance later in his careers, at 29, 32 and 28 years old, after impressive careers in shorter distances.
The most important duel in sight should be the Olympics of Tokyo 2021, although nobody knows if an unexpected rival decides to take the crown and start writing a new chapter of this history.
See you soon.