A Turkish one-two in the women’s 1500m on Friday should have brought widespread joy, but instead it was met with cynical indifference
Two hours after the women’s 1500m final at the London Olympics, Asli Cakir Alptekin and Gamze Bulut faced the world’s press to explain how they had managed to achieve a one-two. “We came here to take gold and silver,” said the gold medallist Cakir Alptekin. “This is Turkish power.”
With both women talking through an interpreter, the runner-up Bulut added: “It is like winning two golds and I would like to say again, this is Turkish power.”
With a time of only 4:10.23 in a slow tactical race, this was the slowest winning mark (by five seconds) since the event was introduced into the Olympics in 1972. Yet that did not prevent a wave of surprise on Friday night as Twitter, especially, raised a giant proverbial eyebrow in cyberspace as athletes and fans viewed the action with a dubious cynicism.
Paula Radcliffe, the world marathon record-holder who has led the way when it comes to spreading the anti-doping message, replied to one fan on Twitter who asked her what her face was like at the end of the race by saying: “It wasn’t a happy one! #lifetimebans.”
Anthony Whiteman, an Olympian and world record-breaker in the masters 800m, 1500m and mile in 2012, added: “The 1500m used to be the Blue Riband seen as one of the highlights of the OG now it’s an embarrassment to Middle Distance running! #sad.”
Some athletes were even fiercer with their views. Hatti Archer, the British steeplechaser, tweeted: “Hate hate hate drugs cheats, ruining races wherever they go,” before ending her message with an x-rated message for cheats.
Nick McCormick, the British Olympian at 5000m, put it more succinctly when he said: “1500m #restinpeace”.
Why such reaction? Well, for starters, Cakir Alptekin had served a two-year doping ban when she tested positive at the IAAF World Junior Championships in 2004 as a teenage steeplechaser. Later, she competed at the 2008 Olympics and 2009 World Championships over barriers but failed to break 10 minutes.
Bulut, meanwhile, has never failed a drugs test but she has made the giant leap this year from a 4:18 runner to 4:03.42 on the eve of the Games and then 4:01.18 in her London 2012 semi-final. The steeplechase has also seen her make massive improvements in 2012 – from 10:13 to 9:34.
It is important to stress that these athletes have not failed drug tests recently and their performances in London have to be considered clean until proved otherwise. This did not stop athletes venting negative feelings on the internet, though, and their suspicions were fuelled by terrible reputation that the 1500m has at present.
Cakir Alptekin and Bulut have their own countrywoman Süreyya Ayhan to partly blame for this. Ayhan broke through spectacularly in 2002 to win the European 1500m title but she missed the 2004 Olympics after drug testers were obstructed in their duties and then received a lifetime ban after testing positive for steroids in 2007.
Alarmingly, when Cakir Alptekin won the European title earlier this summer in Helsinki – with a 57.9 last lap in a 4:05 race – she told the IAAF: “The success of Turkish athletes in the middle distances began in 2002 when the first Turkish woman (Ayhan) got a gold medal. That inspired me back then. We’re happy that we got gold and silver today, the next time we want to get all three!”
Further soiling the reputation of the event, Mariem Alaoui Selsouli, one of the leading contenders for 1500m gold in London courtesy of a 3:56.15 clocking, failed a drugs test for a diuretic in July and has been suspended. Being her second offence, the Moroccan now faces a lifetime ban.
Selsouli was, thankfully, not in the Olympics. But Tatyana Tomashova toed the line in the 1500m final on Friday. The Russian placed runner-up to Kelly Holmes in the 2004 Olympic 1500m final and has won two world titles at 1500m, but she had all her results from 2007 and 2008 annulled for attempted tampering of a drugs sample and returned from a ban in April last year.
Hopefully the medallists from Friday’s final in London are clean, but if any positive tests emerge, then Tomashova will step on to the podium as she finished fourth in the race behind the Turkish runners and third-placed Maryam Yusuf Jamal of Bahrain.
British athletes Lisa Dobriskey and Laura Weightman brought up the back of the field in the final. Yet rather than maintain an honourable silence, Dobriskey spoke her mind on the matter.
She told BBC Radio 5 Live: “I’ll probably get into trouble for saying this but I don’t believe I’m competing on a level playing field.”
Dobriskey has experienced heartbreak in the past when she finished fourth in the 1500m at the 2010 European Championships behind French silver medallist Hind Dehiba, who was arrested in 2007 when vials of human growth hormone were found in her luggage at an airport.
Dehiba, who was subsequently banned for two years after testing positive for the banned blood-booster EPO, was just one of three runners in the 2010 European final who had served doping suspensions.
More recently it emerged that Ukraine’s Nataliya Tobias – who finished one place ahead of Dobriskey to take bronze at the 2008 Games – tested positive at last year’s World Championships.
It is a depressing scenario to consider and it follows in the footsteps of a men’s 1500m final at the London Olympics that was diplomatically described by TV commentators and writers as “surprising”. Taoufik Makhloufi of Algeria has come from virtually nowhere in 2012 to win the men’s metric mile title, with considerable ease.
Like the Turkish athletes in the women’s 1500m, he has not failed a test, but when previously unknown athletes win with such ease it is only natural that ex-athletes and observers are left scratching their heads. And of course his victory follows that of Rashid Ramzi, the Moroccan-Bahraini athlete, who finished first in the 2008 Olympic 1500m final but was later banned for doping and had his result annulled.
There was a moment after the men’s 1500m final in London when the BBC cameras span around to show Seb Coe and Sir Roger Bannister – and one can only wonder what the two legends of the mile were thinking. This has been a magnificent Olympic Games, but it’s fair to say the 1500m races aren’t exactly the highlight for many.
» Jason Henderson is covering his fourth Olympics for AW and tweets at @Jason_AW