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The State of the Gold Standard: IAAF Gold Label Times at Spring 2016 Marathons Worldwide

by Brett Larner

Last weekend's Ottawa Marathon marked the effective end of the spring marathon season, apart from July's Gold Coast Airport Marathon, and of course the Rio Olympics, the last IAAF gold label marathon until September.  Gold label events are required to recruit elite athletes of a variety of nationalities under specific time standards, currently 2:10:00 for men and 2:28:00 for women, in order to earn that label.  There's no question that at its very front end the London Marathon men's race was the best of the season, but using these standards to look at the number of men and women running gold label times, what the IAAF has decreed to be the top level of the sport, what were the best marathons in the first five months of 2016 by depth of quality?

Below are the top ten marathons worldwide this season by number of men under 2:10, number of women under 2:28, and by combined men's and women's numbers under the gold label time standard.  Where races have the same number of athletes under a standard they are ranked by the athletes' average finishing time.

Spring 2016 Marathon Season Gold Label Times - Men (sub-2:10:00)
Asia: 32   Europe: 30 

1. Dubai Marathon, U.A.E.: 13
2. Paris Marathon, France: 8
3. Seoul International Marathon, South Korea: 7
4. London Marathon, U.K.: 6
5. Tokyo Marathon, Japan: 6
6. Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon, Japan: 6
7. Rotterdam Marathon, Netherlands: 4
8. Prague Marathon, Czech Republic: 4
9. Milan Marathon, Italy: 4
10. Rome Marathon, Italy: 4

Spring 2016 Marathon Season Gold Label Times - Women (sub-2:28:00)
Asia: 32   Europe: 18  

1. Nagoya Women's Marathon, Japan: 9
2. Tokyo Marathon, Japan: 8
3. London Marathon, U.K.: 8
4. Dubai Marathon, U.A.E.: 7
5. Seoul International Marathon, South Korea: 4
6. Xiamen Marathon, China: 4
7. Hamburg Marathon, Germany: 3
8. Prague Marathon, Czech Republic: 3
9. Vienna Marathon, Austria: 2
10. Paris Marathon, France: 2

Spring 2016 Marathon Season Gold Label Times - Combined Men's and Women's
Asia: 60   Europe: 41

1. Dubai Marathon, U.A.E.: 20
2. London Marathon, U.K.: 14
3. Tokyo Marathon, Japan: 14
4. Seoul International Marathon, South Korea: 11
5. Paris Marathon, France: 10
6. Nagoya Women's Marathon, Japan: 9   (women only)
7. Prague Marathon, Czech Republic: 7
8. Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon, Japan: 6   (men only)
9. Hamburg Marathon, Germany: 5
10. Rotterdam Marathon, Netherlands: 5

A total of fourteen marathons made the three top ten lists, all but two rated as IAAF gold label events.  Italy's Milan Marathon, a bronze label race, and Germany's Hamburg Marathon, a former gold label race apparently currently without a label, were the exceptions.  Milan placed 9th among men's races with four men sub-2:10, and Hamburg took both 7th among women's races with three women sub-2:28 and 9th on the combined lists with a total of five gold label performances.  China's Yellow River Estuary International Marathon, a silver label race, narrowly missed making the men's top ten with four men under 2:10 but slightly slower on average time than the 10th-place gold label Rome Marathon.

The Dubai Marathon was the top gold label-producing race of the season, with almost twice as many men clearing 2:10 as any other spring race and a solid contingent of women under 2:28:00.  The Nagoya Women's Marathon, the world's largest women-only marathon, surpassed Dubai's women's race with nine women under the gold standard, the most in the world this season.  London and the Tokyo Marathon, both World Marathon Majors events, were almost even with equal numbers of men and women under the gold standard, London's top six men averaging faster than Tokyo's but Tokyo's top eight women faster than London's.  The Paris Marathon was the deepest men's race in Europe this season, 2nd worldwide at eight men under 2:10, but without a comparable women's field, 10th worldwide with just two women under 2:28, it ranked 2nd in Europe behind London and 5th worldwide on the combined list.

Six of top ten men's races and five of the top ten marathons on both the women's and combined lists were held in Europe, with the remaining four men's races and five women's and combined races all in Asia.  Races in North America and elsewhere were completely absent.  On the women's list four of the top five were in Asia, with three of the top five on both the men's list and the combined list likewise in Asia.  In all three categories, among the top ten races Asian marathons produced more finishers under the gold label times than in European marathons, nearly twice as many for women.  London had the two fastest men's times this season, but the 3rd through 10th-fastest times all came in Asia in Dubai and at the Seoul International Marathon.  Likewise for women, eight of the ten fastest times including the top four came in Asian races at the Dubai, Tokyo, Osaka International Women's and Nagoya Women's Marathons.

With a focus on the biggest names in the sport in their recruiting the London Marathon and Boston Marathon retain the most international prestige among spring races, but in terms of both depth and quality more and more people are running faster in the big Asian marathons.  Looking at the previous ten years' top races this seems to be part of an ongoing trend that goes hand in hand with Japan's rise last year to the status of world's largest marathon market and the ongoing development of the potentially massive Chinese market.

Marathons With Most Gold Label Times 2006-2015
2015
Men: Tokyo Marathon, Japan: 12
Women: Dubai Marathon, U.A.E.: 17
Combined: Dubai Marathon, U.A.E.: 27

2014
Men: Tokyo Marathon, Japan: 14       
Women: Boston Marathon, U.S.A.: 12   (aided course) 
                 Dubai Marathon, U.A.E.: 10
Combined: Dubai Marathon, U.A.E.: 20

2013
Men: Dubai Marathon, U.A.E.: 14
Women: Dubai Marathon, U.A.E.: 9
Combined: Dubai Marathon, U.A.E.: 23

2012
Men: Dubai Marathon, U.A.E.: 17
Women: London Olympics, U.K.: 20   (summer race) 
                 Dubai Marathon, U.A.E.: 13
Combined: Dubai Marathon, U.A.E.: 30

2011
Men: Frankfurt Marathon, Germany: 14   (autumn race) 
          Boston Marathon, U.S.A.: 11   (aided course)
          London Marathon, U.K.: 7
Women: London Marathon, U.K.: 16
Combined: London Marathon, U.K.: 23

2010
Men: Paris Marathon, France: 11
Women: London Marathon, U.K.: 8
Combined: Paris Marathon, France: 15

2009
Men: Paris Marathon, France: 12
Women: London Marathon, U.K.: 10
Combined: London Marathon, U.K.: 20

2008
Men: Paris Marathon, France: 12
Women: London Marathon, U.K.: 8
Combined: Paris Marathon, France: 17

2007
Men: Amsterdam Marathon, Netherlands: 11   (autumn race)
           London Marathon, U.K.: 8
Women: London Marathon, U.K.: 6
Combined: London Marathon, U.K.: 14

2006
Men: London Marathon, U.K.: 10
Women: Chicago Marathon, U.S.A.: 8   (autumn race) 
                 London Marathon, U.K.: 7
Combined: London Marathon, U.K.: 17

With very few exceptions the spring marathon season has typically produced the deepest quality races of the year over the last decade.  The 2006 Chicago Marathon was the deepest women's marathon in the world that year with eight women sub-2:28 to London's seven, while the 2012 London Olympics produced the deepest women's race that year at twenty women under 2:28.  Among men, the 2007 Amsterdam Marathon and 2011 Frankfurt Marathons topped the lists, but in every other case the top-ranked races have come in the spring season.

Through 2011 London and Paris were the top gold label time-producing marathons in the world, but beginning in 2012 they were overtaken by the Dubai Marathon, which has ranked #1 on combined gold label numbers every year since then.  Dubai produced the most men under 2:10 in 2012, 2013 and so far in 2016, with Tokyo outdoing it for the top spot in 2014 and 2015.  With the exception of 2014 when twelve women ran under 2:28 at the Boston Marathon, an aided course as defined by IAAF rules, Dubai has also been the deepest women's spring marathon every year since 2012 until being outranked by Nagoya this year.

The upshot is that over the last five years Asian marathons have begun to produce the largest number of athletes male and female running what the IAAF considers world-class times.  Dubai is the heavy hitter, but Tokyo and Nagoya are also reaching the top of the rankings and other races in China and Korea are getting onto the charts.  If you're an athlete trying to run a gold label marathon time you're now more likely to find company at an Asian race than in Europe or North America, an especially meaningful point for Japanese marathoners.  And, combined with the thriving amateur markets in Japan, China and elsewhere, if you're involved in any aspect of the marathon industry, you can't afford to ignore the growth of Asian marathoning.  The World Marathon Majors certainly aren't.  Following Tokyo's entry to the series don't be surprised if you see another Asian marathon added in the next few years.

© 2016 Brett Larner
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