Already a triple Olympic champion and double world record holder on the track, Bekele became the world’s second fastest marathon runner of all time when he won the 2016 Berlin Marathon last September.
It was the fastest marathon time in the world in 2016 and broke Haile Gebreselassie’s Ethiopian record, sending a powerful message to the selectors who had left him out of Ethiopia’s team for the Rio Olympic Games.
Now Bekele will seek to become only the third Ethiopian man ever to win the coveted London Marathon title and the first since two-time winner Tsegaye Kebede in 2013.
Bekele made his London Marathon debut last April when he ran an impressive race to finish third behind Kenyan duo of Eliud Kipchoge and Stanley Biwott despite not being fully fit. Now regarded as one of the true marathon elites, he will have Kipchoge’s course record of 2:03:05 in his sights this year, and perhaps even Dennis Kimetto’s world record of 2:02:57.
“London is the greatest marathon in the world and I would love to win there,” said Bekele. “The field is always the best and victory means so much. After finishing third last year, I know what I need to do to win.”
Biwott, who won the 2015 New York City Marathon, is likely to be Bekele’s main rival as he leads the Kenyan challenge in the absence of two-time champion Kipchoge. Biwott will hope to mark his 31st birthday, which falls just two days before the race, with his first London Marathon victory. He finished runner-up in 2014, fourth in 2015 and second again last year in a personal best time of 2:03:51.
Such is the quality of the line-up, however, the leading pair are just two of seven men who have run marathons in under 2:06, while the field contains two marathon world champions, three of the top five finishers from last summer’s Olympic Games, and the winners of the Abbott World Marathon Majors races in Tokyo, Berlin, Chicago and New York in 2016.
As ever, the main contenders come from east Africa with the Ethiopian contingent especially strong this year.
Bekele’s compatriots on the famous Start Line at Blackheath will include Rio Olympic silver medallist and Tokyo Marathon champion Feyisa Lilesa, the 2016 Dubai and Hamburg Marathon champion Tesfaye Abera, and Tilahun Regassa, who is aiming to make the London podium after finishing fifth and sixth in the last two years.
Meanwhile, Biwott will have top class company in fellow Kenyans Abel Kirui and Daniel Wanjiru. The experienced Kirui, who won the world marathon title in 2011 and 2013, returns to London for the first time since 2012 when he was fifth just four months before winning Olympic silver in the same city. After a number of years without a major victory, he was a surprise winner of the 2016 Chicago Marathon last October and will be looking for another strong performance as he seeks selection for Kenya’s 2017 World Championship team.
Wanjiru will also be one to watch after he lowered his personal best by almost three minutes to win last October’s Amsterdam Marathon in 2:05:21.
Kirui won’t be the only world champion on show as Eritrea’s young star Ghirmay Ghebreslassie returns to London after finishing fourth last April in a PB 2:07:46. The 21-year-old famously become the youngest global marathon champion ever when he won the 2015 world title in Beijing at the age of 19. He enhanced his status as one of the world’s best when he claimed the 2016 New York Marathon crown last November after placing fourth at the Rio Games in August.
Europe could also have a serious challenger in the shape of Abraham Tadesse who broke the Swiss record last March when he clocked 2:06:40 in Seoul, missing the European record by just four seconds. The Eritrean-born Tadesse went on to win half marathon gold for his adopted country at the European Championships last summer and placed seventh at the Olympic Games a month later.
Former European 10,000m silver medallist Chris Thompson flies the flag for Britain on home roads as he targets a place in British Athletics’ London 2017 World Championship team. Thompson was 11th on his debut in London three years ago but could only finish 16th last year when he missed out on Rio selection.
2017 Virgin Money London Marathon elite men and personal bests
Kenenisa Bekele (ETH) 2:03:03
Stanley Biwott (KEN) 2:03:51
Tesfaye Abera (ETH) 2:04:24
Feyisa Lilesa (ETH) 2:04:52
Abel Kirui (KEN) 2:05:04
Daniel Wanjiru (KEN) 2:05:21
Tilahun Regassa (ETH) 2:05:27
Abraham Tadesse (SUI) 2:06:40
Ghirmay Ghebreslassie (ERI) 2:07:46
Amanuel Mesel (ERI) 2:08:17
Asefa Mengstu (ETH) 2:08:41
Oleksandr Sitkovsky (UKR) 2:09:11
Alphonce Felix Simbu (TAN) 2:09:19
Javier Guerra (ESP) 2:09:33
Ghebre Kibrom (ERI) 2:09:36
Vitaliy Shafar (UKR) 2:09:53
Michael Shelley (AUS) 2:11:15
Chris Thompson (GBR) 2:11:19
Bayron Piedra (ECU) 2:14:12
Kevin Seaward (IRL) 2:14:52
Mick Clohisey (IRL) 2:15:11
Robbie Simpson (GBR) 2:15:38
Ian Kimpton (GBR) 2:15:55
Matthew Hynes (GBR) 2:16:00
Bouabdellah Tahri (FRA) 2:16:28
Andrew Davies (GBR) 2:16:55
Tom Anderson (GBR) 2:19:52
Jesús Arturo Esparza (MEX) 2:23:04
Bedan Karoki Muchiri (KEN) Debut