Until Tanzania’s Filbert Bayi (Happy birthday, BTW, June 22) flipped the script at the 1974 Commonwealth Games 1500-meter final in Christchurch, New Zealand, blasting off in the first 400 (54.9) like everyone before him had previously closed the last quarter – and setting a world record in the process (3:32.2) – most foot races from 800 meters and above adhered to an old Chinese proverb: tao guang, yang hui, bide your time, build your capabilities.
That strategy, it was said, would overturn the old order, bring you to the lead and on to victory. See Dave Wottle’s 800m gold medal run in 1972 as primary evidence. Some believe that strategy is also the political philosophy of modern China, but that is another story for another time.
We saw evidence of that same hold-then-bold strategy play out in Tuesday’s men’s 800-meter men’s final at the Olympic Trials in Eugene.
2016 Olympic bronze medalist Clayton Murphy split his race almost perfectly at 51.6 and 51.5 to take the win in a late-race surge over fast-starting and bravely holding Isaiah Jewet (50.61 and 53.24) the recent NCAA champion out of USC.
Shockingly, defending world champion and American record holder Donovan Brazier faded to last place through the final 150, offering no excuses afterward for his catastrophic performance, while showing Olympic-level sportsmanship in the exhausted aftermath, congratulating the Olympians, which included Bryce Hoppel in third.
What is it with the 800? For some reason or other, the two-lapper is a never-ending soap opera at the Olympic Trials. In 2008, it was the late-developing Eugene-based sweep of Nick Symmonds, Andrew Wheating, and a diving Christian Smith that almost demolished the old Hayward Field grandstands, the crowd noise was so loud.
Symmonds repeated four years later, once again utilizing his branded slingshot finish, coming from second-last over the first 400 behind Charles Jock’s 49.86 to run down Duane Solomon on the home stretch. Khadevis Robinson redeemed his oh-so-close fourth-place finish from ‘08 to take third.
In 2016, we saw two of the women’s favorites, Brenda Martinez and Alysia Montano, tangling feet in the final turn, with Alysia sprawling to the track and Brenda jostled out of her momentum enough to keep both off the Rio team in their primary event. Brenda redeemed herself later in the 1500 final, barely edging Amanda Eccleston by .03 to earn her spot on the Rio squad.
So what is it about the 800? Is it because the 2-lapper is at the junction between sprints and distance running? Even in the broadcast booth, it wasn’t Kara Goucher, the distance running analyst, doing the commentary – though she easily could have. Instead, sprinters Ato Boldon and Sonya Richard Ross were on the call and did a cracking job.
The 800 is the first of the multiple lap track events and hovers in the positive-split camp, with the first 400 generally faster than the second.
2021 Trials runner-up Isaiah Jewet, led out this year with an opening 400 of 50.61, which is relatively conservative by recent Trials standards. Clayton Murphy stuck by his bide-your-time strategy even as the race entered the backstretch.
With nerves all aquiver, Murphy still sat fifth. He held his fire until the final 150, not taking the lead till the line was within triple jump distance. At the end, his world-leading 1:43.17 chased down the brave NCAA champ Jewet who posted a personal best 1:43.85 (53.24 last 400) while Bryce Hoppel notched the final Olympic spot, crossing in 1:44.14.
Kenya’s incomparable David Rudisha ran the world record 1:40.91 at the London Olympic Games in 2012 splitting the 200m in 23 seconds and the 400 in 49.28. Rabbits? We don’t need no stinking rabbits! Meaning he covered his final 400 in 51.63. Forgetting the speed, that is the traditional way to run the 800.
In any case, as often as not, the 800 meters always comes through as one of the most dynamic events in any Olympics or Trials. In 2021, we have the U.S. men’s team selected, women left to go beginning Thursday in round one. It ought to be a pip come the final on Sunday at 4:52 p.m.