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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Beijing 2008: 400 women, 100m H and 1500m Men

Night of drama in Beijing as pre-race favourites "blow it"

The drama of the Olympic Games is not simply in the prestige associated with gold and the fact that the world's focus is on the athletes for the two-week period. It's also that it happens once every four years.

For that reason, the stakes are that much higher. At the risk of committing sporting sacrilege, the problem with sport today is that there is too much of it. Many sports are in danger of suffering a "credibility crisis" because they saturate us with competition after competition, and ultimately, those competitions become meaningless, devoid of any signficance. A beaten athlete knows that the next tournament, title or trophy is just around the corner, and the impact of failure and success is diluted as a result.

Not so for the Olympic Games. Athletes must wait four years for a shot at Olympic Gold, and so the potential glory, and the heart-break as a result of failure is that much greater.

Which is why tonight's action from Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium was so dramatic. Because in a period of about 20 minutes, two athletes, one heavily favoured to win the Gold and the second coming within 10 m of claiming it, were denied by their own errors. They can do nothing but wait until London 2012, and hope for their shot at gold.

Women's 400m - Richards gets the pacing wrong

First it was Sanya Richards, of the USA. The world's best 400m runner for two seasons now, and completely dominant during the European season, she missed out on gold at the World Championships last year thanks to her failure to make the US team after a bout of illness. Beijing was to be her redemption. . . or maybe not, as she started her final way too fast.

If anyone has the precise splits from the race, please let us know and we'll plot them for all the women. But Richards went off like a 200m runner. She built up a huge lead over the first 200m, eating up the stagger on the athletes outside her. Coming around the bend, with 120m to run, her lead was upward of 6m, and the big challengers (Ohuruogo and Williams inside her) were even further behind - perhaps 10m back.

And then the wheels fell off. As is typical in a 400m race, the pace got slower and slower, but the result of Richards' fast early pace was that she went backwards far faster than anyone else. Her lead vanished, and became a deficit, and in the end, it was Christine Ohuruogo of Great Britian, the 2007 World Champion, who finished strongest to claim the title, with Shericka Williams second and Richards third in a very disappointing 49.93 seconds - slower even than her semi-final where she eased up in the final 50m.

Ohuruogo's winning time of 49.62 seconds was very slow - you have to go back many years to find a women's Olympic 400m title won in such a slow time - at least to 1980 (drugs had a lot to do with that, admittedly). Credit to Ohuruogo, however. She's clearly a big championships runner, having won in Osaka as an outsider, and repeating that here - few expected that she'd triumph, but she got it right when no one else could. Richards, for her part, will be desperately disappointed with the result. She's dominated women's 400m running for two years, being unbeatable on the European season, and still has not one major individual championship medal.

Women's 100m hurdles - Lolo Jones does the job, but loses out at the end

One of the most dramatic moments of Olympic history that I can recall was Gail Devers' 100m hurdles race in Barcelona in 1992. She had the race won, and then hit the last hurdle, losing her balance and eventually falling over the line to see the gold medal (all the medals, actually) disappear from her grasp. She was lucky, because she had the 100m sprint to make up for it.

Not so for Lolo Jones, who did a Gail Devers in Beijing, as she stormed away from the field in the 100m hurdles final, and then hit the 9th hurdle hard. It stopped her in her tracks, she lost all momentum. And while she stayed on her feet, her error allowed the rest of the field to catch her as they jumped for the final hurdle of the race. Jones had lost the momentum, and it was too late to recover, and she crossed the line in 7th place, having been a sure gold medalist only 20 m earlier!

It was a moment of drama and tragedy for Jones, but illustrates just how fickle the hurdles events are (that's also a reason why Liu Xiang's withdrawal is so disappointing - it denied us great theater in his race against Robles over the technical high hurdles). Jones had a look of anguish on her face as she dipped, she knew what she had within her grasp, and she knew she'd lost it. In the unforgiving Olympic cycle, that means a four-year wait and no small amount of regret. In the end, the race was won by Dawn Harper, also of the USA, which at least meant the USA got the gold. For Jones, it will be little consolation---she'll know that she deserved the gold, had all but won the gold, but has nothing to show for it.

I guess that's both the beauty and the sadness of Olympic competition. A great night of athletics in Beijing, though!

Men's 1500m - Ramzi steps forward

The final track event on the programme was the men's 1500m final. This is one of the most open events in all of athletics at the moment - ever since Hicham el Guerrouj bowed out of the world stage after his double gold in Athens, no one has really stood up to claim his crown.

What has happened over the last four years is that numerous "pretenders" have come forward, each one claiming major victories and running impressive (though not spectacular) times, but no one has provided the consistent level of performance that we saw from el Guerrouj or even Morcelli before him.

And so it's perhaps fitting that tonight's Olympic 1500m final developed the way it did. It was a race without "purpose", in so much that no one really took the race and stamped their authority on it, apart from Rashid Ramzi of Bahrain, when it really mattered at the end. He is the one man who has shown big-championship credentials, having claimed the double over 800m and 1500m in Helsinki. He disappeared after that, and had a very poor 2007, but is now back and can add the Olympic gold to his major medal haul.

Abel Kiprop went to the front early, and ran the first 400m in a respectable 56.48s. But then they slowed it down, and covered the second lap in 59.58 seconds. The pace then stayed moderate, and Ramzi was comfortably poised to strike on the last lap. It was much like the Men's 10000m final, where guys were going to the front and then doing nothing to the pace, with the fastest runner in the field sitting contentedly in the group.

Ramzi moved clear with 250m to go, and his 800m credentials came through. With 200m remaining, he was never going to be beaten, and though Kiprop tried gamely, Ramzi entered the home straight with 2m, and finished with 1.5m. His final 400m were covered in 53.15 seconds, which is fast, but not spectacular. In the end it was his strength and sustained speed that carried him home.

Silver went to Kiprop, and bronze to Nick Willis of New Zealand, something of a surprise. The victory was not as surprising, however, and Ramzi inherits the title left vacant by Hicham el Guerrouj. Whether he can hang onto it is another matter...time will tell.



Anonymous said...

Here in New Zealand, we're thrilled with Nick Willis's bronze. An unexpected bonus!

Thanks for the absolutely wonderful coverage.

Anonymous said...

9 medals for New Zealand is really great considering that a nation of 4 million goes up against nations which have much greater population. I believe that if one compiles a per capita medal table (as it has been done before) New Zealand would get one of the top places.

P.S. I usually do not respond to other readers' comments but Kiwis are well deserving. I am also very happy that Bevan Docherty, a favorite athlete of mine, got a bronze medal in Triathlon.


mcgrathe said...

Guys, not sure of all the splits for the 400, but Eamonn Coughlan ("Chairman of the Boards" and only man over 40 to run a sub 4 min mile) was talking about it on Irish TV last night and he said that Ohuruogo and Williams both went out in 24.8 for the first 200. Ohoruogo ran the second 200 in the exact same time - perfect pacing, whereas Williams just faded over the second half.
Sanya Richards on the other hand went out in 23.3 - a whole second and a half ahead of the rest of the field and just blew up in the last 75m.

Thanks for the coverage guys, as a former sprinter and long jumper, I'm learning an awful lot about the endurance events here.

Anonymous said...

"He disappeared after that, and had a very poor 2007" - you mean ran out of drugs for a year? I see he's found a supplier again...

mcgrathe said...

By the way, would there be any chance of a comment on the 800m. I'm particularly interested in your opinions on the Borzakovskiy method of pacing versus the accepted "run as hard as you can and try to hang on" method.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Eoin

Thanks for the splits - my inaccurate timing from the TV broadcast had Richards running a 23.4s, so it's more or less the same. The IDEAL pacing strategy is probably not EVEN, but slightly positive - you should run the first half about 1 second faster than the second, if you believe the historical data of how the athletes tend to pace themselves. There's also a load of research suggesting the same thing - the best way to run is faster at the start, even if you slow down at the end.

Up to a point. Richards exceeded that point by a long way - her differential between first and second 200m was almost 3 seconds, which is way too much. She mis-paced it badly.

On your next comment, absolutely. The 800m event is my favourite, and I'm planning a whole post on it closer to the big final from Beijing. So look out for that one, and the specific comments on the race.

Thanks for the visit!


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Anonymous

On Ramzi - as I was typing "disappeared", I must confess I was thinking what you said! But I decided to avoid it, but I'm right there with you. I wish there was proof though, because otherwise what basis for the claims?

Anyway, between you and me (and everyone who reads this), I have some strong suspicions...


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

HI Lyn

Thanks for the visit from the land of the long white cloud.

Indeed, you guys have had a fantastic Olympics so far, very impressive.

I'm sure that George is right that if you rearrange the medals table to reflect medals PER PERSON, you would feature near the top - the Carribean islands like Jamaica and Bahamas usually win it, but you've done exceptionally this year!

THanks for the visit!