This post is by Phil.
Last summer my wife and I took a 3.5-month vacation that included a wide range of activities. When I got back, people would ask “what were the highlights or your trip?”, and I was somewhat at a loss: we had done so many things that were so different, many of which seemed really great…how could I pick? Someone said, wisely, that in six months or a year I’d be able to answer the question because some memories would be more vivid than others. They were right, and I was recently thinking back on our vacation and putting together a list of highlights — enjoyable in itself, but also worth doing to help plan future vacations.
One of the things we did was go to four evenings of track and field events at the London Olympics. After we got back, people would ask what we had seen at the Olympics. I would say “We saw Usain Bolt run the 200m, we saw the women’s 4x100m relay and the men’s 4×400, we saw the last events of the decathlon…lots of great stuff. But my favorite was the men’s 800m.”
Trying to figure out why that was one of my favorite events to watch, I looked up some facts and statistics about the race. Perhaps unexpectedly, I think that some of the things that made it great, as both an athletic contest and a spectacle, are reflected in the stats.
The 800m is not one of track’s marquee events: it’s much too long for an all-out sprint, so it doesn’t have the intensity of a 100m or 200m. It has even less of a following than most track events, which is saying something: I’m going to guess that most readers of this blog cannot name a single U.S. track athlete, and that only a tiny fraction can name a competitor in that 800m Olympics final.
Me, I’m more of a track fan than most — my wife and I have gotten interested, especially since discovering that during our fitness workouts we were sometimes sharing the track with Alysia Montano and Magdalena Lewy-Boulet, and we spectate at track meets occasionally — but although I recognized a few of the names in the 800m Olympics final I didn’t really have any context for what I was about to see. Like most people in the stadium, I expect, I was looking forward to the highly-anticipated 200m final later in the evening and hadn’t even thought about the 800. That 200m final was exciting and electrifying, but to me it was no match for the 800.
When the race started…it’s hard to say how this could possibly be, but I could just tell that something special was happening. Maybe everybody in the stadium could tell. One of the runners — David Rudisha of Kenya, the record-holder at the time — went to the front and was pushing hard, and everyone else was going hard too. Of course. It’s the Olympics! Finals! Of course they’re running hard! Well, yes, but… it’s hard to explain…it just seemed more intense even than the other finals we had seen, which seems paradoxical because, this being the 800m, the runners weren’t running as fast. I’ve tried to tell if you can see in the video what I’m talking about (the race starts at about 3:15), but I’m not really sure, you tell me. (One thing that you can see on the video is how easily these guys seem to cruise through the 400m mark in under 50 seconds, incredible).
So, here’s what happened:
Rudisha, the pre-race favorite, won the event, beating his own previous world record.
The times flashed up on the scoreboard, with indicators to say if the time was a World Record, National Record, Junior Record, Personal Record, or Season’s Best. That column on the scoreboard looked like this:WR, NR, PB, PB, PB, NR, SB, PB In other words, seven out of the eight runners had run their personal best time.
That’s all I knew at the time, and it’s only recently that I learned some other facts: All eight athletes went under 1:44, the first time that has ever happened; and the first place time was (obviously) the fastest first place in history, but also, the second place was the fastest second place in history, and third was the fastest third in history, and so on all the way down the line.
It obviously takes a special effort to set a personal record, and those records usually come when the athlete has something at stake: the chance to finish on the podium at their national championships, or to qualify for the Olympic team, or whatever. For a guy who is rounding the final curve 20 meters behind the leaders, a guy who is going to finish in 8th place, to push himself to the fastest that he has ever run, that seems to me to be even more remarkable than someone running a personal best in order to set a new world record. I tip my hat.
So I think it wasn’t the effort by the top finishers that made the race seem so special at the time —
we had seen other records set[correction, this was the first WR we saw], we would see records set the following day, and they were great and exciting but they didn’t have the same magic for me. I think what made this special was the effort all up and down the line, every runner trying his hardest right to the end. Maybe the best 800m races to watch are the ones where the last-place finishers run their hardest, not where the first-place finishers run theirs. Just a thought.
This post is by Phil.