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Kenya's Wanjiru wins men's Olympic marathon

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BOB BAUM | August 24, 2008 01:30 AM EST | AP

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BEIJING — Samuel Wanjiru already had made a name for himself in the heady world of Kenyan distance running. Now he stands alone.

He pulled away over the final few miles Sunday to become the first Kenyan to win an Olympic marathon _ and he did it faster than anyone ever has.

Wanjiru negotiated the 26.2-mile course through the Beijing streets in bright morning sunshine in an Olympic record of 2 hours, 6 minutes, 32 seconds.

"In Kenya we have many medals," Wanjiru said, "but I'm glad I have this one."

His name was listed on the official results sheet as Wansiru, but the Kenyan said that spelling was incorrect.

Kenyans had twice won men's marathon silver, most recently in 2000, but never a gold.

At the Beijing Games, Kenya won 14 track and field medals, behind only the United States (23) and Russia (18). Five of them were gold.

The biggest concern about this race leading to the Olympics was the quality of the air. World record-holder Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia decided not to run because of the pollution. But on Sunday, after an overnight thunderstorm, a glorious blue sky greeted the final day of these games.

The women's marathon a week earlier was run in a light rain, and the air quality posed no problems for the runners.

The race began at the edge of Tiananmen Square, then wound around the Temple of Heaven before turning toward the Olympic Green and the Bird's Nest, where colorful dancers, drummers and cyclists entertained the crowd as it awaited the runners.

This was just the third marathon for the 21-year-old Wanjiru, who first set the world half-marathon record at age 18, then broke it twice again last year.

Two-time world champion Jaouad Gharib of Morocco won the silver in 2:07:16. Ethiopian Tsegay Kebede, winner of this year's Paris Marathon, took the bronze in 2:10:00. Ethiopian Deriba Merga led much of the race but faded badly at the end to wind up fourth.

The crowd roared as Wanjiru entered the Bird's Nest, and he responded by raising his left hand, then clapped several times. The final lap in the last event of track and field at the Beijing Olympics was run around an infield painted blue for the night's closing ceremony.

Just across the line, Wanjiru _ all 112 pounds of him _ kneeled and crossed himself several times. He had just broken the Olympic mark of 2:09:21 set by Carlos Lopes of Portugal in the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

As Wanjiru was still on one knee, Gharib crossed the line for the silver.

"I had to push the pace to tire the other runners," Wanjiru said. "I had to push the pace because my body gets tired when I slow down."

Wanjiru, who trains at 7,600 feet on a trail that runs alongside spectacular Thompson Falls, won the Fukuoka International Marathon in Japan last December and was runner-up at the London Marathon in April.

Americans Dathan Ritzenhein and Ryan Hall finished ninth and 10th, respectively.

Defending Olympic champion Stefano Baldini of Italy, in his final marathon, finished 12th, then praised those who finished at the front.

"In the last 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) it was unbelievable what the ... Africans were able to do under these conditions," he said.

The temperature was 75 degrees with 52 percent humidity when the race began at 7:30 a.m. and it heated up steadily through the morning, reaching 86 degrees by the finish.

The lead pack began to separate through the first three miles. By the halfway mark, eight were grouped at the front, led by Eritrean Yonas Kifle.

After almost 19 miles, the pack had dwindled to three _ Wanjiru, Merga and Gharib.

Reigning world champion Luke Kibet of Kenya stayed with the leaders through the early stages but fell back and finally pulled out of the race shortly past the halfway mark. He later said he had a stomach problem.