Elite athletes arrive in London
It took two chartered flights, some international diplomacy, the help of a good Spanish friend, and close liaison with the British Embassy in Madrid, but after days of uncertainty and logistical headaches a plane load of the Virgin London Marathon's elite international runners arrived in London this afternoon with just two days to spare before Sunday's race.
Olympic champions Sammy Wanjiru and Constantina Dita were among 18 of the world's best marathon runners who stepped off a chartered flight from Madrid at London's City airport at 5.30pm today after travelling for days from all parts of Europe, Africa and South America. It was the final stage of a series of journeys arranged by the London Marathon organisers to ensure its international athletes are present, correct and ready to run in the 30th London Marathon this Sunday despite the major travel disruption caused by the eruption of volcanic ash in Iceland last week.
Wanjiru, the reigning London Marathon champion, and Abel Kirui, the world champion, were two of six Kenyan runners who were picked up in Nairobi by a Gulf Stream jet chartered by the organisers in Barcelona. The plane then flew to Asmara, in Eritrea, via Djibouti to collect the world half marathon champion Zersenay Tadese and his fellow Eritrean Yonas Kifle, the Djibouti stop a necessary way to get around political restrictions on entering Eritrea.
The jet then flew its elite cargo to Madrid, via Luxor (for refuelling), where athletes from all over the world were gathering. There, they were looked after by Miguel Mostaza, technical director of the Madrid Marathon, who found them hotel rooms and training facilities.
Among those Mostaza welcomed were the 2009 London Marathon runner-up, Tsegaye Kebede, and three fellow Ethiopians who arrived by scheduled flights from Addis Ababa; Dita and Chicago Marathon champion Liliya Shobukhova who made their way with half a dozen others from eastern Europe; and two-times New York Marathon champion Marilson dos Santos, who flew in from his home in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
The Marathon's chartered plane left Madrid at 15.30 local time today and arrived in London three hours later.
"If it wasn't for this flight we could not be here," said Kebede's coach, Geteneh Tessema, after landing at City Airport. "We thought the journey was going to be hard but in the end it wasn't so difficult."
Dita, who is running in London for the ninth time, added: "I am not sure I would have been here if it wasn't for this flight. I am so relieved to be here. After all the uncertainty, I want to be the best I can on Sunday."
"I'm so tired," said Wanjiru. "I am a little worried now but after a good sleep I will start to look forward to it from tomorrow. I like running here."
Emmanuel Mutai, world championships silver medallist, said: "I left home on Tuesday and am very tired now. But I'll be fine. This will be third race in London and I am looking forward to it. If the weather is right I can go for a personal best."
Also on the flight were 17 British citizens who had been struggling to get home from Spain. Two families of five, plus a pregnant woman and her husband, were among the Britons who were offered free places on the special flight. When the Marathon organisers realised there would be spare seats on the plane they contacted the British Embassy who arranged for the stranded travellers to get home.
"We spent the flight trying to recognise the athletes," said Ross Wealands from Kent, husband of pregnant Poppy. "I'll definitely be watching the marathon with my mates on Sunday and pointing out who I was flying with today. We're really grateful for the lift."
"I've never liked England as much as I do now," added Poppy. "This just doesn't happen to people like us."
The Smith family from Dorset had spent two days trying to get back from Gran Canaria when British officials offered them the seats. "When we got to Madrid Airport there was a sea of people, but the Embassy was great and we couldn't believe we got picked to go on a private plane with elite athletes," said father Steve.
"We always watch the London Marathon on TV and definitely will be again on Sunday after this."
Minister for Europe Chris Bryant, a veteran of three London Marathons, was also in Madrid as part of the government's response to the travel crisis. "We're all absolutely delighted that the London Marathon has arranged this," he said. "The Marathon is a worldwide, international superstar event. It shows off London to the world and it raises millions of pounds.
"What's really nice is that some UK citizens have been given the chance to get back to the UK.
"I've run the London Marathon three times. I'm not able to run this year because of the election campaign, but my Private Secretary is running and hopes to beat my PB of 3:34:19."
Altogether the Virgin London Marathon spent nearly £150,000 from its contingency funds to ensure its elite fields are again the best in the world.
"I don't think we've ever hired a jet before," said Bedford. "But in the end I think it was pretty good value for money. You can't put on an event without a contingency fund and the amount we spent is well within that. For us, it's about maintaining the quality of the event rather than bean counting.
"I believe now we will have the best fields ever in the most challenging circumstances we have ever faced. I expect to see some incredible performances on Sunday."