I was lucky enough to have tickets to one of the marque events of the Games, the men’s 1500m final. But after the winner, Taoufik Makhloufi of Algeria, easily kicked away from one of the top middle distance fields in recent memory, the crowd (including Seb Coe, Roger Bannister, Steve Cram commentating, and NZ 1500 legend John Walker watching at home) was left stunned. I too have been scratching my head, wondering what went on … so here is my analysis.
First of all, the winner: Makhloufi, 24, has never made a final at a major championship before and just this season has changed teams and coaches to improve his 1500 PB by 2 seconds (3:30.88 in Monaco two weeks ago) and his 800m PB by a whooping 3 seconds (1:43.88 at the African Champs six weeks ago). He has hit an incredible patch of form, impressive but not unusual, and as a result certainly entered the Games as an outside medal chance.
The Kenyans: This final was stacked with top guys, in top form. The three Kenyans all held the top three times in the world this year and have been clear favourites all season, dominating Diamond League meets and being the only men to run under 3:30 this year. Off a reasonably fast race (which this was for a championship race) you’d put a lot of money on at least one of these guys making the top three.
Unfortunately, it looks like Asbel Kiprop was dealing with a hamstring niggle and was out the back with 400 to go. But the other two, Chepseba and Kiplagat also faded badly. Want went wrong?
New Zealand: Behind the Kenyans, Nick Willis was the next best ranked runner in the 1500 final. He finished third behind Kiprop and Chepseba in Monaco just two weeks ago (with a 1 second PB) and was looking well placed to back up his silver from four years ago, having also run a 300m PB in training (showing that he had both speed and stamina).
Ethiopia: Another notable entry was Mekonnon Gebremedhin who ran 3:49 for the mile last year and just this summer PB’d in the 1500.
The Americans: Matt Centrowitz won bronze at the Worlds last year, so was an outside chance at a medal again. But his compatriot Leonel Manzano has been so up and down with form (despite winning the US Trials he couldn’t even break 4 minutes for the mile at Crystal Palace a few weeks ago) that realistically he was making up numbers in last night’s final.
So after the heats and semi finals all looked as it should with the favourites progressing. The one surprising factor was the ease and huge margins by which Makhloufi won both his heat and semi (1.41secs and 0.68secs respectively). He didn’t look like he was conserving energy for the final at all. This point was strongly stressed by BBC commentator Steve Cram who was also surprised at Makhloufi’s tactics and strength.
The Race: Anyway, the final comes around and they hit the first lap in 58.30 – reasonably quick for a championship final. The next lap is a little slower in 60.33 but still very much playing into the hands of the favourites. From here the pace lifted considerably with the third 400 run in 56.09 (still not an unmanageable pace for the top guys – in fact Nick Willis’ PB in Monaco was averaging 56 second laps). But it’s what happened at around 300 to go that blew this race out of the water.
The Kick: So from the bell the pace of the race had naturally increased. All the top guys (except Kiprop who was already out the back) were at the front, pushing the tempo. Then on the outside, after barging his way to the front, Makhloufi dropped a phenomenal burst to blow apart the field. He ran 25 seconds flat for 200m between 1200 and 1400m (that’s 50-second pace for 400m, which is world record pace for an 800, let alone a championship 1500).
In dropping this huge kick he dragged all the favourites (the two remaining Kenyans, the Ethiopian, Nick Willis) with him as they attempted to cover his bold move. But Makhlouifi kept going and one-b-one the favourites dropped off and all faded badly. None of them made the top five because by 100m to go they were toast, as opposed to the Algerian who showed incredible speed endurance to cruise to the win.
With the favourites all fading, in step the “outside chances” (who had all run a more conservative race between 1100 and 1300), who one-by-one move past the favourites (the debris of Makhlouifi’s kick) around the bend and into the home straight. Manzano comes screaming down the home straight to claim silver. Iguider, the Moroccan, takes bronze with Centrowitz, close behind.
The Post-Mortem: The 1500 is easily the most tactical race in athletics. Anything can happen on the day. But for all the favourites to finish, not only outside of the medals, but outside the top five is just staggering. And I am certain it was all a result of Makhlouifi’s epic kick from 300 out. It was great tactics by him and a phenomenal display of strength.
I am a big fan of the 1500 and the mile. I’ve watched almost every major mile or 1500 for the past five or six years and I have honestly not seen a surprise kick like Makhlouifi’s since Rashid Ramzi decimated the field back in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. And this is why everyone is so uneasy about the Algerian’s win.
We all know what happened to Ramzi (done for doping shortly after the Games and stripped of his gold) and as much as I’d like to hope Makhlouifi is not doping, the facts can only suggest either a phenomenal breakthrough race (in which case, expect to see him dominating middle distance running for the next four years) or another Ramzi. If it’s the former, good on him, we’ve seen the rise of a new legend. But if the latter, not only has he stolen gold from Monzano, but he also destroyed the race in the process, flipping it on it’s head so that the favourites missed out even on the minor medals.
For now, I’ll say “good on him”. I believe in innocent until proven guilty. It was a dream race for him and he must be stoked. He taught the world’s best a lesson in kicking off a reasonable paced race and has reignited Algerian middle distance running.
PS. On the BBC coverage there was this great moment after the race where Steve Cram says, “He [Makhlouifi] won it in a manner that many will find surprising … there’s a slightly perplexed Seb just wondering quite what happened there,” as the camera pans to Seb Coe and Roger Bannister looking totally confused. And if they’re surprised, I think it’s okay for the rest of us to be as well.
This is the women’s 100m hurdles start. I didn’t manage to get a pic of the 1500m – I was little bit preoccupied and excited!