The marathon as such was brought back to life in the first Olympics of modern times, in Athens 1896. On April 10 Spiridon Louis won for Greece the first Olympic gold medal in the marathon, running around 40 kilometres. After this first attempt, Boston organised its own marathon on April 19, 1897 with victory for John J. McDermott of New York.
There have been many marathons since then, and one can wonder which was the best country at such a distance during a period. That is a difficult question we have tried to answer, considering only the following marathon events:
World Record performances. Maybe the only achievement capable of overshadow the Olympic glory, allowing any marathon runner to write his name in marathon history.
WR: 20 points
Olympics. For most athletes, the Olympics are the highest achievement. Organised every 4 years (with the exceptions of 1940 and 1944 because of WWII, and the 2020 delayed to 2021) for many marathoners they were for long almost the only chance of getting noticed internationally. It was the case of great Abebe Bikila.
1st: 10 points. 2nd: 8 points. 3rd: 6 points. 4th: 4 points. 5th: 2 points
World Championships. Celebrated for the first time in 1983 in Helsinki, they took place every 4 years until 1997, when they started been organised every 2 years. Many great marathoners won it, although it looks that recently have become a “minor” event.
1st: 5 points. 2nd: 4 points. 3rd: 3 points. 4th: 2 points. 5th: 1 point
World Marathon Majors. As we mentioned previously Boston is the oldest of the Marathon Majors, being organised since 1897. But the World Marathon Majors Series has been recognised as such only recently. Despite this we have decided to include these marathons into our account. New York organised its own marathon in 1970, with Berlin following suit in 1974, Chicago in 1977, London in 1981 and Tokyo, as we know it in 2007. All these marathons are top-level, although considering that there are 6 over a year period, their scores are a bit lower.
1st: 3 points. 2nd: 2 points. 3rd: 1 point
Many other marathons could also qualify for this classification, but it would be almost impossible to consider all marathons run every year worldwide.
Additionally, for our analysis, we ONLY included the 5 countries with more WR that has been traditionally the most influential: UK 8, USA 7, KENYA 5, ETHIOPIA 5, and JAPAN 4.
For the first half of the 20th century US was clearly in the lead. The Boston marathon was an event where usually US and Canada athletes occupied the first positions, with some exceptions from different countries, especially Finland capable of competing at the highest level. It was not until 1947, with the WR victory of Suh Yun-bok from South Korea, that Boston reached worldwide popularity.
From the 1950s to the 1980s we must mention the UK and the figure of Jim Peters. He broke the WR in 4 different occasions between 1952 and 1954, 3 of them in the prestigious, but sadly disappeared Polytechnic Marathon, or the Poly, that was held annually between 1909 and 1996. That period saw also the dominance of Kenya in the Olympics, with victories and WR performances from Abebe Bikila in Rome 1960 and Tokyo 1964, and victory for Mamo Wolde in Mexico 1968.
From the 1980s onwards with the running boom and the appearance of the remaining World Marathon Majors and World Championships the scales have tipped in Africa´ direction. Kenya entered the marathon scene with a second place in the 1982 Chicago Marathon by Joseph Nzau, who won on the following year. From that victory onwards Kenya has claimed two Olympic titles, 5 World Championships and other 93 victories in Marathon Majors! In doing so they have also broken 5 times the WR. Coming late, Kenya has already overtaken the US place as the historically dominant marathon nation. On the African side Ethiopia have also started climbing positions, especially in the last 20 years, to increase his tally of victories, that started in the 1960s.
Do you agree with our analysis of the men´s marathon international scene or do you have your own favourite?