By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) - Multi-world and Olympic 5,000 and 10,000 meters champion Tirunesh Dibaba, arguably the greatest women's distance runner of all time, will make her marathon debut in London in April, race organizers said on Friday.
Fellow Ethiopian and 2012 Olympic women's marathon champion Tiki Gelana and runner up Priscah Jeptoo of Kenya will also return to the city's streets alongside a men's field that boasts no fewer than 11 athletes who have run under two hours, six minutes, but all eyes will be on Dibaba.
The 27-year-old boasts four world titles on the track at 5,000 and 10,000m, three Olympic golds including her second 10,000 in London last year, and four world cross country titles.
She ran her first half-marathon in Britain's Great North Run last September and after a conservative approach in rainy conditions, duly blasted through a high class field in the last mile to win in an impressive 67.35 minutes.
All three men's medalists from the 2012 Olympics will also return to the British capital.
Uganda's Stephen Kiprotich, the surprise winner of the Olympic marathon in front of astonishing crowds five months ago, faces a stern test from a lineup that also includes the winners of last year's London, Berlin, Chicago, Frankfurt and Dubai marathons.
It is a men's elite field that organizers rightly describe as the best ever assembled.
Olympic silver medalist and double world champion Abel Kirui, Olympic bronze medalist, Wilson Kipsang, who missed the course record by four seconds when winning last year's London marathon, Patrick Makau, world record holder with 2:03.38, and three-times London winner Martin Lel will provide an awesome Kenyan challenge for the April 21 race.
Among the Ethiopians bidding to ensure their east African neighbors do not have it all their own way will be Tsegaye Kebede, who won the 2012 Chicago marathon and the 2010 London race, Ayele Abshero, who won last year's Dubai marathon in the sixth-fastest time ever (2:04.23) and Feyisa Lilesa, another sub-2:05 man.
"We're delighted to welcome all three men's medalists from the 2012 Olympic Marathon to this year's Virgin London Marathon," race director Hugh Brasher told reporters at the race launch.
"It promises to be a remarkable battle between the strongest men's field ever assembled for a marathon."
Gelana's Rotterdam winning time of 2:18.58 last year put the Olympic champion behind Britain's Paula Radcliffe, Russian Liliya Shobukova and Kenyans Mary Keitany and Catherine Ndereba on the all-time list.
But she will also face a massed Kenyan threat in the women's race.
Florence Kiplagat, world champion Edna Kiplagat, London Olympic runner-up Jeptoo will be right behind her, with only absentee Russian bronze medalist Petrova Arkhipova preventing a full return of the Olympic top three.
The elite fields kick off the 42.195-km race that features over 36,000 amateur runners, making it the biggest marathon and highest charity fund-raising race in the world.
(Editing by Alison Wildey)