Choosing the best ever marathon runners is complicated by the way the event has changed. In earlier times the most prestigious event by far was the Olympic Games but in recent years the big city marathons have become more important as they provide a valuable pay day in a career with relatively few races.
The tables below show some of the career statistics for some of the top runners with columns representing
OG – Championship titles in the Olympics
WC – World Championships (WC) or other championships indicated by the letters CG for Commonwealth Games, EC for European Championships or PG for Panamerican Games,
WR (years) – the number of World Records set and the number of years they held the records for, which is a guide to how good the records were
WL – the number of years they were world ranked number 1 in marathon either by Track and Field News from 1946 or in earlier years by time
Major – the number of wins in major city marathons
Other – other marathon wins.
|Veikko Karvonen (Fin)||1EC||3||2||1|
|Gerard Cote (Can)||3||4||6|
|Jim Peters (GB)||4 (4)||1|
|Abebe Bikila (Eth)||2||2 (3)||3|
|Frank Shorter (USA)||1||1PAC||3||4||2|
|Waldemar Cierpinski (GDR)||2||2|
|Bill Rodgers (US)||3||10||12|
|Rob De Castella (Aus)||1 2CG||1(3)||1|
|Gelindo Bordin (It)||1||2EC||1||2|
|Abel Anton (Sp)||2 1EC||2||1|
|Gezahegne Abera (Eth)||1||1||2||4|
|Jaouad Gharib (Mar)||2|
|Haile Gebrselassie (Eth)||2(4)||2||6||3|
|Wilson Kipsang (Ken)||1 (1)||5|
|Abel Kirui (Ken)||2|
|Eliud Kipchoge (Ken)||1||1||4||6|
|Christa Vahlensieck (FRG)||2 (1)||2|
|Grete Waitz (Nor)||1||4 (2)||6||11||1|
|Joan Benoit Samuelson (US)||1||1 (2)||2||3||2|
|Ingrid Kristiansen (Nor)||2 (14)||1||8|
|Rosa Mota (Por)||1||1 3EC||3||8||1|
|Uta Pippig (Ger)||2||7||2|
|Paula Radcliffe (GB)||1||2 (16)||3||7|
|Irina Mikitenko (Ger)||2||4|
|Catherine Ndereba (Ken)||2||1 (1)||2||7|
|Tegla Lorupe (Ken)||2 (3)||3||3||1|
|Edna Kiplagat (Ken)||2||3|
As can be seen from the tables for the men not many athletes really tick all the boxes. The championship winners haven’t often been the ones who set the fast times and the prolific winners of major city marathons don’t tend to win the major championships.
The athlete many now consider to be the best man ever over the distance is Eliud Kipchoge. He has won ten out of his eleven marathons and was second in the other. This is an unrivalled record of success over that many marathons but even though he has a raft of very fast times only just set a world best time. This record means that he has cemented himself as my choice for the greatest ever. Abebe Bikila was the first great African marathon runner and he changed the world map of distance running for ever with his two Olympic marathon golds. He is second for me with a close call for third. Frank Shorter is my choice.
The greatest women runners have tended to achieve more of the goals required but the problem is evaluating the achievements over different eras. Grete Waitz’s achievements in the early days of the event were fantastic but nowadays races are clearly more competitive than in those times and to win as many is very difficult. Rosa Mota is the best runner in championships but never broke the world record. Paula Radcliffe’s record time has stood for fifteen years and is the best run in the history of women’s marathon and she won a world title. These are my top three and choosing one is tricky. I give greater weight to championship performances and so I go with Mota as number one. Waitz’s achievements were so outstanding even allowing for the lesser strength of the event that I put her second with Radcliffe in third.