Saturday, September 4, 2010

Rudisha and Kipketer: The two greatest two lappers

In the last couple of weeks something amazing happened. No not the hung parliament, but the running of the two fastest 800m races of all time in the space of seven days by Kenyan David Rudisha.David Rudisha

While I enjoy politics, books, film, footy and other sports, my one true love is for athletics. And within athletics, it is the middle distance events that hold the greatest joy. As a kid in high school I ran middle distance, and thus it is a love that has been part of my life for nearly 30 years.

As a runner my favourite event was the 3000m, the event I hated the most was the 800m, and the event I wished I was better at was the 1500m. I was probably a better long distance runner and thus the 3000m suited me best; the 800m was too much of a sprint. I could never get close to breaking 60secs for 400m, so I was never going to be a chance to break 2 minutes for the 800m, and if you can’t do that, even at a junior level, you’re going to struggle.

The 1500m for me is the purest event of the Olympic Games. It is the wonderful combination of speed and endurance that elevates it above the 800m or the 5000m. 

The 1980s and 1990s were a golden age for middle distance. Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett in the early 80s, Said Aoutia and Steve Cram in the latter half, then came the sublime Nouraddine Morceli in the 1990s, followed by the impossibly good Hicham El Guerrouj.

El Guerrouj holds an amazing 23 of the 50 best times for the 1500m, and he broke the elite 3 min 30 sec barrier an astonishing 31 times. The next best, Morceli, did it 8 times.

In the 1990s, the 800m was dominated by one man – Wilson Kipketer. He was a Kenyan who in 1990 moved to Denmark, applied for citizenship, but was denied the opportunity to run in the 1996 Olympic Games because Kenya would not waive the rules to allow him to run for Denmark as he was not yet a full-citizen (this was despite him already having represented Denmark at the 1995 World Championship, where he won the gold in the 800m – the first of 3 world titles). Would he have won the Olympic title in Atlanta? The odds certainly would have favoured him, but form can mean little in the Olympics, as El Guerrouj discovered in Sydney, where he was beaten for the first time since 1997. It was however a great sadness that he was denied the chance when he was at the peak of his powers.

Kipketer holds 18 of the top 50 times for the 800m. When he retired only 3 people had broken 1min 42 for the 800m, and he had done it 4 times.

He came second in the 800m at the Sydney Olympics. I was there that night, and it is fair to say I was a horrible amalgam of distraught and ecstasy. Ecstasy that I was in the stadium on the night the 800m final was being run; distraught that my favourite runner was beaten in a pathetically slow race. Kipketer had torn his calf muscle only two months prior, and thus was without his usual strong kick that would usually have got him the win in such a race (he also ran a tactically terrible race).

In some ways this was just given he had taken the 800m world record from Sebastian Coe, who also was never to win the 800m Olympic Gold Medal (he came 2nd in both Moscow and LA), and who in Moscow ran an equally terrible tactical  race.

Kipketer, at the age of 33 turned up at Athens and came 3rd. Well past his prime, but still among the best in the world.

The main aspect that endeared him to me was the way he ran. I doubt there has ever been someone who made running an 800m look so effortless. His stride was long and graceful, his upper body compact and never ragged. He glided along – the pure middle distance athlete.

Unfortunately the YouTube clips of him running are poor quality, and the best you can see of his style is this short clip (that someone has done a clip of him running in slow motion set to music says something!)

It was a pity however that El Guerrouj and Kipketer came to prominence at a time when the traditional 800m-1500m runners were becoming dinosaurs. After he turned 21 year old, Kipketer didn’t run the 1500m and after that age El Guerroj didn’t run the 800m.

To see the two head to head would have been amazing – even if it were over the little ran distance of 1000 (of which they both had a very similar PB).

Kipketer was at the summit of his talent in the summer of 1997. On the 7th July he equalled the 16 year old 800m world record set by Sebastian Coe. In the first week of August he won the 800m World Championship title. On the 13th August he broke the world record taking it from 1:41.73 to 1:41.24. Eleven days later on 24 August he reduced it to 1:41.11.

Now that was a good 6 weeks.

Up until 3 weeks ago, he was untouched as the greatest 800m runner of all time. Only Coe was in the same conversation.

And then along came David Rudisha. At 21 years of age he is still very young for a middle distance runner – Kipketer was 26 in the golden period of 97. Last year he set his PB for the 800m of 1:42.01. He looked set to be the 4th athlete to break the 1:42 barrier, but he was still a bit of a rough diamond. He came 3rd in his semi-final of the world championships in Berlin last year – and thus failed to make the final.

This year however he stepped up. He broke 1:42 on 10th July, running 1:41.51 – beating Sebastian Coe’s best time, and was the third fastest 800m of all-time. Then on the 22nd of August, at Berlin, he took the world record from Kipketer by one one hundredth of a second – 1:41.10. Then for good measure a week later he broke it again, running 1:41.01.

701173-ryan-gregsonHe has now run under 1:42 three times, holds 4 of the top 10 times (Kipketer holds 4, Coe and Joaquim Cruz the other 2), and if he goes under 1:41, will have taken the event to a new level. His style is not as graceful as Kipketer – in fact I think he runs a bit like Usain Bolt would were he a middle-distance runner.

He is yet to win a major championship. He will need to win at least one or two, and win an Olympic Gold before I’ll put him above Kipketer on the all-time greatest list. Running fast is wonderful, but athletics is about winning races when it matters. If you can win a world championship you can’t be the greatest of all time.

It is a pity he is again from the 800m only mould of runners (though he started as a 400m runner), because the 1500m event has become somewhat stale since El Gurreouj’s retirement – since 2006 the 3:30 mark has only been beaten twice. 

Perhaps the mile will be spiced up by a surprising source. In July, Australian Ryan Gregson ran 3:31.06 to break the 19 year old Australian record held by Simon Doyle. Gregson is only 20, and his best time last year for the 1500 was 3:37.24. The time is the 5th best of the year – and he is younger than the other four.

Here’s hoping we’ve seen the start of another golden age of middle-distance running.

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