The build-up to the London Olympics is well underway. On June 9th the reigning 800-meter world record holder David Rudisha of Kenya will make his U.S. debut at the Adidas Grand Prix in New York City, the sixth stop on the 2012 Samsung Diamond League tour. During a media teleconference this morning, Rudisha spoke about his dual goals in 2012 of winning the London Olympics and attempting to break his own world record of 1:41.01, set in Rieti, Italy in 2010.
“To run 1:40 is possible,” said the reigning World Champion. “I am planning still to do that because I think I can still go under 1:41, but it’s tough. Any world record is very hard to break it, even if it is your own world record. You need to do some good planning also on how to do it. I am looking forward to that but my plan is the world record will be after the Olympics. I’m keeping my focus, my main concentration to the Olympics, which is the only main title I’m still lacking in my career. I don’t want to take any time or do anything else before I finish that task.”
Interesting how the idea of winning the Olympic title and running a world record have long since been separated into two distinct categories, as if the two were different disciplines altogether. And in many ways they are. But has something been lost in the process? Has the long-time emphasis on running world record times with pacers become so prevalent that the focus on competition between and among carbon-based life forms been diminished along the way? And since that change in focus, has the sport lost some of its appeal to a broader audience when racing was the thing, and the world record was merely the cherry atop the cake of victory?
As you look at the 800 meter world record progression chart, you will find that three world records have been set and one equaled at the Olympic Games. The IAAF first recognized the 800-meter world record in 1912, the year America’s Ted Meredith won the Stockholm Olympic 800 in a world record 1:51.9. Twenty years later, Britain’s Tommy Hampson ran a world-record 1:49.7 to capture the Los Angeles Olympic title. And thirty-six years following, Australia’s Ralph Doubell equaled the world record, 1:44.40, to snatch gold in Mexico City 1968.
Throughout much of the 20th century there remained a connection between winning and setting a world record, which the normal order of importance. But the last non-paced 800-meter world record was set in Montreal, Canada in 1976 by Cuba’s great double Olympic champion Alberto Juantorena (he also won the 400m). El Caballo (“The Horse”) galloped to a 1:43.50 in the Montreal Olympic final, a record which he bested the following year in Sofia, Bulgaria (1:43.44). Two years later Sebastian Coe arrived, and there have only been two further record holders since, Kenyan-born Dane Wilson Kipketer and now David Rudisha.
With the emphasis on paced record attempts – Rudisha even has his own personal pacer in Sammy Tangui – the records are so strong that it now seems beyond reason for a purely competitive effort to lead to a new mark. The entire approach to racing versus time-trialing is different. Some might say it is one of the problems with how athletics (track & field) is organized and presented.
“The way I trained in 2010,” explained Rudisha, “it was a different training because that year I was focusing for the world record, focusing for the fast races. The way I trained that year was a little bit different to 2011, which was tactical training because of the World Championships in Daegu last year. This year I’m trying to mix the 2010 training with 2011 to see if I can get it for the Olympics. Then after the Olympics I’ll have that good training for the world record. That is what we are trying to do. … I’m trying to build and mix everything to be in position.”
The longest standing 800-meter record belongs to England’s Sebastian Coe whose 1:41.73 in Florence, Italy in June 1981 lasted till tied by Wilson Kipketer in Stockholm in July 1997. Germany’s Rudolf Harbig ran a world-record 1:46.6 in Rieti, Italy (on a 500 meter track) in July 1939. That mark held until Belgian Roger Moens ran 1:45.7 in Oslo, Norway in August 1955. Harbig’s time lasted just two weeks less than Coe’s mark. Dane Kipketer’s 1:41.11 from Cologne, Germany in August 1997 stood for 13 years until Rudisha came along to break the mark twice in 2010, ending with the current standard of 1:41.01.
Even as he approaches his American debut, the focus is on time, though not a world record. After a 1:43.1 season opener at the Doha, Qatar Diamond League stop, Rudisha said that 1:42 in New York would be a good progression toward London. The fastest 800 ever run on U.S. soil is 1:42.58, set by Vebjorn Rodal of Norway, interestingly, at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.