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Thursday, August 09, 2012

London 2012: Spectacular 800m

Rudisha lights up London with a world record. And more 800m thoughts

The London Olympics saw its first World Record on the track tonight, and not surprisingly, it came from David Rudisha, who ran from the front, gun to tape, to become the first man in history to break 1:41.  His time was 1:40.91, and he pulled the other seven men to the fastest, most spectacular 800m race that we have ever seen.  More on that below, along with some other thoughts on his race.

1)  Rudisha's race strategy

The question ahead of the race, for many, was not whether Rudisha would win, but what the margin of victory would be.  There has been no greater favorite in an athletic event at these Games than Rudisha. His form this year has been spectacular, he has won paced and unpaced races, he has run from the front and looked peerless.

The biggest question was perhaps around the tactics he would employ in the Olympic final.  Front-running is the logical choice to most, because when you're about two seconds faster than the next fastest guy, you would want the pace to be beyond them.  Why allow a final 200m sprint, where a different type of physiological attribute can determine success, when you have such dominance over the whole race?  The problem in a final 200m sprint is that when the spread of runners is relatively narrow, the first 600m does enough "damage" physiologically that the person who is running with the greatest "reserve" is not guaranteed to win.  The ability to close in say 25 seconds is not a function of that reserve, which means that a 1:44 man can beat a 1:41 if they both get to that position together.  In Rudisha's case, I suspect he is so superior that he'd win anyway, but it becomes a far more open race than it might otherwise be.

So front-running was the option, and Rudisha was wise enough that he actually started to do this in his European races leading up to London.  We have seen many times how athletes become so accustomed to paced races on the circuit that they seem all at sea during a tactical race - the Kenyans in the 1500m looked this way earlier this week.  But Rudisha seemed ready, he had familiarized himself with the front-running pattern in a few races, including the Kenyan trials, and so everyone expected this approach.  Once he led after the break at 100m, it was clear that he was going for it.  It is easier said than done, however, largely for psychological reasons - putting yourself out as a pace-maker is never easy in an Olympic final.

It takes confidence and conviction, and Rudisha was good enough to do it.  He led the field through the bell in 49.28s, and then began to open the gap with 300m to go.  That's not surprising, because everyone in the race was running above themselves just to reach the 500m mark at that pace.

At 600m, which was passed in 1:14:30 (25.02s for the 200m split). Rudisha was clear, and on course for the record.

He slowed in the final 200m, covering it in 26.61s, but it was enough to break 1:41, and claim Kenya's second gold.  The manner of the win, plus the bronze for Timothy Kitum, will be some consolation for the nation that expected more than they have won to date.

2) The race was spectacularly deep and fast

Rudisha was chased home by a host of sensational performances.  In fact, every single position in the race set a world-place position.  Second went to young Nijel Amos of Botswana (a surprise) in 1:41.73, fittingly equalling Seb Coe's old world record), and then a further three men went under 1:43.  They included the two Americans, Duane Solomon and Nick Symmonds, who would surely not have believed that they'd break 1:43 and not even win a medal.  Even in last place, Andrew Osagie ran 1:43.77.  Only Abubaker Kaki of Sudan, who eventually finished 7th, did not run a personal best.  Three national records were also set.

It was just a spectacularly fast and deep race, and while everyone who was in it might feel stunned at their times without medals, they were part of something truly remarkable.  I suspect many would be wondering if a step up to 1500m might not make more sense, however - Rudisha is only 24!

3) The pacing - a pattern in the 800m

One final point about the race, and it relates to a peculiar pacing pattern that you see when you look at the best ever performances in the 800m event.   Part of my PhD looked at the pacing strategies used in all the world records from 800m to 10,000m, and there's a pretty constant pattern in long-distance races.  The 800m race is different, however, and is paced differently from other middle- or long-distance races.

However, I'm going to hold back on this discussion, for now, because David Epstein of Sports Illustrated will probably introduce it in his piece on the race.  I'll provide you that link, as soon as it comes out, and then I'll add the detail once his article is up.

So that's for tomorrow, a discussion on pacing in the 800m event.

There is much more to be said about 800m running, but on the women's side.  The semi-finals took place tonight, and they introduced us to a controversy that is just waiting to erupt when the finals happen on Saturday.  Semenya is back, having battled all year for half a second here and there in the range of 1:59-2:00, she tonight won her semi, looking incredibly easy and in a time of 1:57.  That's a 2 to 3% improvement, after a long season of many reasons 'stuck' at 1:59.

Cue yet another debate on "unrealistic" performance improvements, like those we saw with Ye Shiwen and Makhloufi.  Except this time, it's not doping that will be discussed.

But that may be for another day, keep your eyes open for the debate.

Until tomorrow, which brings some relay finals, and the women's 5000m, the second part of a Tirunesh Dibaba double, perhaps?