The Giants of 800m
Dr Matt Long and Geoff James apply their model of two-lap track success to the all-time greats.
In our first article, we posited an 'ideal type' model of two-lap running, and here we empirically test its strength by relating it to some of the all-time greats of the event. Due to our strict admission policy of only allowing Olympic 800m champions into our 'hall of fame', there will be notable absences - none more so than double Olympic 1500m champion Seb Coe. His phenomenal 1:41.73, a world record in 1981, remains untouched as the British record.
The tables presented distinguish male and female champions and present their year of Olympic success, several Olympic medals (Med), whether they held a middle-distance world record (WR) and early training background (Tr), be it predominantly aerobic (Aer) or anaerobic (An). Each athlete is scored out of a maximum of 16 points with the total (To) in the far-right column.
The specific key to our model is as follows:
In terms of assessing the weaknesses of some of the all-time greats, it would seem that those whose early training background was anaerobic, such as Whitfield, Courtney, and more recently Borzakovskiy, have also been found lacking at the highest level in general aerobic fitness, according to our model. Albert Hill (1920) and Douglas Lowe (1924/28) were the weakest links. Hill was found wanting at the highest level in commitment, strength endurance, race pace specificity, and reaction time. Lowe had vulnerabilities in mental control, strength endurance, race pace specificity, and a finishing kick.
Concerning the model, Peter Snell (1960/64) and Steve Ovett (1980) had all of the components in their armoury. The great Arthur Lydiard coached new Zealander Snell. Despite having a relatively short career, he also achieved gold over the metric mile in Tokyo (1964) and his two 800m golds. Incredibly, on a grass track in February 1962, his world record of 1:44.3 remains the official 'Oceania' record to this day! Despite having a relatively modest PB of 1:44.09 compared to some of the modern two-lap greats, Ovett matches Snell stride-for-stride according to our model. Coached by the late Harry Wilson in the Moscow Olympic 800m final, he was only in sixth place at the halfway mark but pushed his way through the crowd to second place, with early leader David Warren fading quickly. Around 70m from the finish, he kicked for home and held off the heavily favoured Coe's late challenge to win by three metres, with his 1:45.4 reflecting the tactical nature of the race.
If Snell and Ovett occupy top spots on our 800m podium, then a special mention must go to 1936 champion John Woodruff (USA). At the tender age of just 21, he was involved in one of the most exciting races in Olympic history. On the first lap, he became boxed in by other runners and was forced to stop running but showed remarkable concentration and control to come from behind to win in 1:52.9. We speculate that had it not been for the Second World War, Woodruff could have gone on to take no less than three consecutive Olympic golds had the 1940 and 1944 Games not been cancelled.
The women's event has made great strides since the 1960s, and we look forward to the first sub-1:50 clocking by a female. To this end, none of our all-time great females scores the total 16 points as judged by our model. Given the lack of inclusion in the Olympic schedule until Ann Packer's memorable triumph in 1964, just nine women make the all-time grade greats according to our model.
Despite being just 20 years old at the time of her gold in Mexico City, our weakest link is 1968 champion Madeline Manning. According to our model, Manning wants maximal muscular power and general aerobic fitness. With no less than six of our Olympic greats scoring 15 points, we feel that Maria Mutola (Sydney 2000) edges out Nadezhda Olizarenko (Moscow 1980) and Svetlana Masterkova (Los Angeles 1984). While she lacked a world record, linked to her Olympic gold were an unbelievable ten world championship gold medals, three of which were outdoors. According to our model, Mutola was found wanting only in terms of general aerobic fitness, as evidenced by her relatively modest personal bests of 9:27 for 3000m and 18:15 over the rarely contested 5000m.
Not surprisingly, the best of British go to 2004 champion Kelly Holmes who famously added a second gold over 1500m just days after her two-lap triumph in Athens. Despite still holding the British records at 1500m (3:57.90), 800m (1:56.21), and at the rarely run 600m (1:25.41), Holmes was found wanting in terms of maximal speed in world-class terms.
Hopefully, what this article and the previous one has shown is (1) to have presented both the middle distance coach and athlete with an ideal type model which is underpinned by a philosophy for two lap success and also (2) presented genuine fans with the opportunity to debate the controversial application of our model to some of the all-time greats. We make no apology in our attempt to stimulate clubhouse and barroom discussion, and like any model, we welcome its eventual overhauling and supersedence by other such ideal types.
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About the Authors
Dr Matt Long works for British Athletics in coach education, having delivered work at the national high-performance centre at Loughborough University.
Geoff James works for England Athletics and is a Birchfield Harriers middle distance coach who has guided athletes to Olympic and world championship levels.