London 2012 Olympics: Kenya’s David Rudisha storms to 800m world record
And it felt all the more poignant because the astonishing David Rudisha grew up idolising Seb Coe and hoping to emulate his feats on the world stage.
“Lord Coe is a good friend of mine,” Rudisha said last night. “I came here in February and he took me around the stadium. I wanted to come here and make him proud.
“I am very happy. I’ve waited for this moment for a very long time. To come here and get a world record is unbelievable. I had no doubt about winning. Today the weather was beautiful – I decided to go for it.”
Coe for his part described it as an “unbelievable” display and said Rudisha’s triumph in 1min 40.91sec would go down in history “as one of the greatest Olympic victories”.
Rudisha was like the hare on a greyhound track. He did not run a tactical race. He knew he was in a different class to the rest of the field, because his season’s best time coming into the race was a full two seconds quicker than anything anyone else had managed. What followed was surely the greatest display of 800m running in history, not just from Rudisha but from the whole field.
He hit the front of the pack somewhere around the 150-metre mark, leaning slightly into his long and rangy stride. And from there, he just stretched out the lead to the point where the other runners were trailing behind him like so much bunting in the wind. The effect was that six of them ran a personal best, including Britain’s Andrew Osagie, who can be proud of his efforts even though he finished in eighth and last place.
Osagie must have felt a little like Zelig, the Woody Allen character who appears at the side of the screen during great moments in history. The 800m world record is one of the most exclusive properties in athletics, because it has been owned by only four men since 1976.
One of those men was Coe, of course, who spent 16 years in possession between 1981 and 1997. The others are Alberto Juantorena, Wilson Kipketer, and Rudisha himself, who had previously taken the record down from 1-41.11 to 1-41.01.
Last night, he shaved another tenth of a second off it in a spine-tingling display of power and grace. There was never any narrative drama in the race, such was his dominance almost from first to last, but the sheer spectacle of a world-class athlete at the peak of his powers made it utterly compelling. The 200m final was supposed to be the big draw of Thursday night in the Olympic Stadium, but Rudisha was far more than a warm-up act.
The last time Rudisha broke the world record – in fact, he broke it twice in a week, in August 2010 – he returned home to such grand celebrations from his fellow Maasai tribesmen that 50 cows were slaughtered. Goodness knows how many sacrifices there will be after this race, which also featured another Kenyan in third place, 17-year-old Timothy Kitum.
In fact, Kitum trains with Rudisha under the supervision of an Irish priest, Father Colm O’Connell. They work out of a school high in the Rift Valley called St Patrick’s, and Kitum’s spectacular showing yesterday suggests O’Connell — who moved from Cork to Kenya on a two-year teaching placement in 1976, and never came back — could have more world-beaters on his hands.
Separating the two Kenyans was another teenager, 18-year-old Nijel Amos, who claimed Botswana’s first Olympic medal in athletics. Amos and Kitum finished first and second at the World Junior Championships in Barcelona a month ago, and their extraordinary performances here suggest 800m running is not going to get less competitive any time soon.
Amos’s time of 1-41.73 yesterday was a world junior record, and it also provided echoes of the historic moment when a British athlete ran 1-41.73 in Florence 21 years ago, setting a world record. Coe’s great time remains the fastest by a Briton, but Osagie moved into fourth place on the list last night with his 1-43.77, which shaved a second off his personal best. Among athletes from this country, only Coe, Steve Cram and Peter Elliott have gone faster.
Just to add to the litany of superlatives, and the list of extraordinary statistics, Osagie’s time was the fastest to finish last in any 800m race. “At any other Olympics, those times would get medals,” he said. “But David’s in such good form. I was hoping everyone was going to come back to me, I ran quicker than I ever have. It’s the Olympics, and everyone gives their all.”