We take a look at the history of the men’s 800m at the Olympic Games
The Rio Olympic 800m will be hard-pressed to match the speed and quality of London in 2012, but most of the contenders will be back.
David Rudisha struggled with his fitness and form in 2013 and 2014 but won the 2015 world title. Other finalists from London, including Nijel Amos and Mohammed Aman, have won titles since and could be factors along with last year’s world No.1 Amel Tuka.
The first Olympic champion in Athens in 1896 was Edwin Flack, who won in 2:11.0, a pace that wouldn’t have even sufficed for 10,000m gold 100 years later. Although representing Australia, he lived in London. The multi-talented Flack competed in the tennis tournament earlier on the day of his final!
The Olympic record went inside two minutes for the first time in St Louis in 1904 to American James Lightbody, who was fifth for most of the way, until a late sprint. He clocked 1:56.0 and then narrowly lost in 1906 in Athens to team-mate Paul Pilgrim, the 400m champion.
The 1908 race saw a furious 53.0 first lap from Briton Ivo Fairbairn-Crawford, but he faded and was overtaken by American Melvin Sheppard at 500 metres. Sheppard went on to break the world record with 1:52.8. He was slowing so much that he took 1.2 seconds to cover the 4.68 metres between 800m and 880 yards, which is 3:25 pace! Timing was set up at 880 yards by the London organisers to see if there was a world record at their more familiar half-mile distance.
In Stockholm in 1912, it was Sheppard who set the pace with a 52.4 first lap, but he was run down in the straight by Ted Meredith, who broke the former’s world record with 1:51.9 and he carried on successfully to break the half-mile record with 1:52.5.
After USA’s four successive wins, Britain then won the next four (see British successes below). America were back on top for Berlin in 1936 when John Woodruff won a slow tactical race in 1:52.9 as Canadian Phil Edwards won his fifth bronze medal at all events.
USA domination continued post-war as in both 1948 and 1952, Mal Whitfield narrowly beat Jamaican RAF sergeant Arthur Wint, recording an Olympic record 1:49.2 in both London and Helsinki. America also won in 1956 in Melbourne but only just as Tom Courtenay caught Britain’s Derek Johnson in the dying metres in an Olympic record 1:47.7. He was so exhausted by his effort that the medal ceremony was delayed an hour.
By then Roger Moens had finally broken Rudolf Harbig’s celebrated 16-year-old world record of 1:46.6 in 1955 with 1:45.7 but was injured in 1956. The Belgian was a big favourite in Rome in 1960 and led until the final strides when he was caught by a then unknown Peter Snell, whose pre-Olympic half-mile best was just 1:49.2. Snell won in an Olympic record 1:46.3.
The New Zealander then dominated the middle distances and in 1962 set world records at 800m and the mile. His 1:45.1 in Tokyo in 1964 was part of a middle-distance double and the world’s quickest time since his world record 1:44.3. With the advantage of altitude, Australian Ralph Doubell officially equalled that record in Mexico, although later the automatic timing was confirmed as 1:44.4.
That stood as the Olympic record until 1976 when Alberto Juantorena led through halfway in Montreal in 50.9 and then held off a strong field to win in a world-record 1:43.50. He was the first winner of the event from a non-English speaking nation.
In 1984 in Los Angeles, Joaquim Cruz took that record down to 1:43.00 in winning comfortably from Sebastian Coe. In Seoul in 1988, Paul Ereng was a surprise winner. Only third in the Kenyan trials, and well beaten by a controversially non-selected Coe in London earlier in the season, he sprinted to victory ahead of Cruz in 1:43.45. Third place went to the 1984 5000m champion Said Aouita, who suffered his first loss at any distance from 800m to 10,000m for three years and barely held off Britain’s Peter Elliott for third.
Vebjorn Rodal became Europe’s first non-British winner in 1996 as the Norwegian won in an Olympic record 1:42.58. Denmark’s world champion Wilson Kipketer couldn’t run as he hadn’t completed a seven-year residency, having previously competed for Kenya. He was able to compete in Sydney in 2000 and as now three-time world champion, was a huge favourite but he ran a poor tactical race and was narrowly beaten by Germany’s European champion Nils Schumann. Just eight hundredths of a second covered the three medallists.
Europe won again in 2004 in Athens and fast-finishing Russian Yuriy Borzakovskiy sprinted to a win in 1:44.45 with Kipketer third.
William Bungei won a tight, scrappy race narrowly in 2008 in Beijing, but there was nothing like that about the 2012 race in London, as in the performance of the Games, elegant long-striding Kenyan David Rudisha front-ran a 1:40.91 world record, leading most of the field to either national records or PBs. Britain’s Andrew Osagie finished last in 1:43.77, which would have been fast enough to win the three previous Olympic races.
Most memorable Olympic 800m: Munich 1972
The pre-race favourite was European champion Yevgeniy Arzhanov of the Soviet Union, who hadn’t been beaten for four years and had a strong sprint finish. American Dave Wottle, thought of by most as a mile specialist prior to 1972, shocked everyone when he equalled the world record of 1:44.3 in the USA Olympic trials. However, with no international experience and a bout of tendonitis, he was thought of as a long shot for a medal.
After 200 metres, Wottle, wearing a golf cap, was languishing 10 metres behind the other seven runners and was still last at 400 metres, 12 metres off the leader, who ran 52.3. Arzhanov put in an extravagant kick down the back straight to move from sixth to first, led five runners off the bend and then kicked a few metres clear. He looked to be heading to a comfortable victory, but the double kick had an effect and he began to slow 30 metres out.
Wottle had moved up to sixth 120 metres out and then fourth into the straight. Swinging wide, he passed Robert Ouko 40 metres out to move to third and then Mike Boit with 20 metres left. He overtook a fading Arzhanov with virtually his final stride as the Ukrainian threw himself across the line. Wottle, with 1:45.86, took the verdict by three hundredths of a second. He then embarrassingly forgot to take off his cap during the medal ceremony.
Britain has a glorious record at the 800m, the best at any Olympic event, winning six gold medals. Alfred Tysoe won the 1900 Olympics in Paris with a 56.2-second lap but died of pleurisy aged 27 just over a year later. Albert Hill won the first part of his 800m-1500m double with a narrow 1:53.4 victory. Incredibly the semi-finals were run 30 minutes before the final!
Britain retained the title in 1924 through Douglas Lowe’s 1:52.4 with the Briton winning by a tenth of a second. Norway’s Charles Hoff finished eighth and was the reigning world record-holder in the pole vault but couldn’t compete in that event due to a foot injury. Lowe retained his title much more easily in 1928 in Amsterdam in an Olympic record 1:51.8.
The fourth successive British win came in 1932 and it was a historic one as Tom Hampson’s fast finish gave him a world record 1:49.70 – history’s first sub 1:50. His previous best had been just 1:52.4.
The other British success came in 1980. The big favourite was world record-holder, at 1:42.33, Sebastian Coe, but he ran a terrible tactical race. He stayed too far back and reacted far too late, finishing almost five metres behind his team-mate, Steve Ovett, and was devastated.
A 20-year-old Ovett had finished a well-beaten fifth in 1976 and he then became the world’s top miler in 1977 and was the 1500m favourite for Moscow. His 800m PB was almost two seconds slower than Coe’s and most observers thought he was running for second at best. He was boxed a few times in the final, but barged his way out of trouble and then was well placed when Soviet Nikolai Kirov burst into the lead down the back straight. He eased past 70 metres out to win easily in 1:45.40 – almost identical to his 1976 time.
Ovett was to run much faster in the 1984 semi-finals with 1:44.81, where he had to dive to make the final, but suffering from bronchitis and breathing problems he was last in a final where Coe was a much happier second.
» Check out editions of Athletics Weekly magazine from September 24, 2015, for more from our ‘Countdown to Rio’ series
» For the full Olympic history: Men’s 800m feature, including a complete list of medallists and further facts and stats, see the November 5, 2015, edition of AW magazine