In a continuing series, Steve Smythe looks back at the men’s 1500m at the Olympics
The Rio Olympics 1500m will be decided by who has the best kick in the last 200 metres and currently the overwhelming favourite is Kenyan world champion Asbel Kiprop. However, tactically he has been naive in the past and on the day any one of 10 could snatch gold. However, after being considered the blue-riband event of so many Olympics, the event’s importance and excitement does seem to have faded over the last decade since Hicham El Guerrouj’s retirement.
The first Olympic 1500m champion was Australian Edwin Flack who also won the 800m in Athens in 1896. The 1500m pace of 4:33.2 wouldn’t have been sufficient to have won the last two Olympic marathons!
Great Britain won in 1900 (see British successes) but America won the next three titles with James Lightbody winning both the 1904 and 1906 races.
Mel Sheppard gained the middle-distance double in London in 1908 with the officials having a winner-only heat policy and the second fastest runner from the heats, Emilio Lunghi, failed to qualify for the final. Sheppard had earlier been prevented of becoming a New York policeman because his heart was adjudged too weak!
Britain were back in charge in 1912 and 1920 before the great Paavo Nurmi won in Paris in 1924. Nurmi won in an Olympic record 3:53.6 and was just a second off his world record but he eased off on the last lap as he saved himself for the 5000m final, which he went on to win two hours later.
Finland retained the title in 1928 in Amsterdam through Henry Larva’s 3:53.2 and then the Olympic record was further improved in 1932 in Los Angeles by Italy’s Luigi Beccali to 3:51.2.
In Berlin in 1936, six of the top seven from Los Angeles returned for an epic race. World mile record-holder Glenn Cunningham led until 300 metres out when Jack Lovelock shot past. The New Zealander, who had been seventh in 1932, and was an Oxford student, covered the last 400 metres in an unprecedented 56.8 to take a second off the world record with a time of 3:47.8. Cunningham also broke the old record with Beccali third.
For London in 1948, the top two through World War II, Gunder Hagg and Arne Andersson were banned as professionals but Sweden still gained a one-two through Henry Eriksson and Lennart Strand.
In 1952 there was a shock victory for Luxembourg’s Josef Barthel. Roger Bannister was fourth and might have won had the organisers not added semi-finals for the first time at a very late stage which didn’t suit the lightly-trained Briton.
The Olympic record fell by almost four seconds in 1956 in Melbourne when Ireland’s Ron Delany sprinted to victory in 3:41.2 but that was nothing compared to Herb Elliott’s win in Rome in 1960. The Australian powered through the closing laps to win in a world record 3:35.6 winning by almost three seconds.
Another miling superstar won in Tokyo four years later as Peter Snell completed an 800m and 1500m double with a fast finishing sprint. The next mile world record- holder Jim Ryun would have won in Mexico but for the high altitude. Instead he had to settle for a distant second as Kenyan Kip Keino took Africa’s first middle-distance gold in an Olympic record 3:34.9. Keino returned in Munich in 1972 but was easily beaten by Finland’s Pekka Vasala, who only showed this form for a brief period.
Africans were absent from Montreal in 1976 due to a boycott over a New Zealand rugby tour to South Africa and it was the Kiwi world mile record-holder John Walker who took advantage of 1500m record holder Filbert Bayi’s absence to win gold by just a metre from Ivo Van Damme.
British athletes fared well in the next three Games with two in the first four in each race but Britain found it harder in 1992 and thereafter.
The winner in Barcelona was Fermin Cacho, who spent most of the finishing straight looking behind him disbelieving his victory. The Spaniard won in an unbelievable atmosphere to become the first home winner of the event since 1904.
World champion Noureddine Morceli wasn’t at his best and finished seventh but a month later set a world 1500m record of 3:28.86. The Algerian won further world titles in 1993 and 1995 and then won the 1996 Olympic title in Athens. His expected biggest rival Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco fell while poised on Morceli’s shoulder.
El Guerrouj responded by winning the 1997 and 1999 world titles and smashing the world 1500m and mile records to the current marks of 3:26.00 and 3:43.13. The Moroccan was a huge favourite for Sydney in 2000 but he couldn’t drop his shadow Noah Ngeny and the Kenyan sprinted past down the straight to win in the current Olympic record of 3:32.07.
El Guerrouj returned to winning ways to win the 2001 and 2003 world titles and then in his third Olympics, won narrowly in the 2004 Games in Athens, where he also won the 5000m.
Rashid Ramzi was first across the line in Beijing in 2008 but was disqualified after a failed drugs test as the gold went to Kiprop. The Kenyan wasn’t fully fit in London in 2012 where Algeria’s Taoufik Makhloufi won with a furious long sprint for home.
Most memorable Olympic 1500m: Seoul 1988
The Olympic 1500m title has often been won by the sport’s biggest stars. That wasn’t the case in 1988 though. World record-holder Said Aouita withdrew after winning a medal in the 800m and world champion Abdi Bile pulled out with a stress fracture and another 800m medallist Joaquim Cruz dropped out after the heats.
Double Olympic champion Seb Coe was inexplicably ignored by the British selectors while world leader and former world champion and 1984 runner-up Steve Cram was running but had been injured.
After a slow start, diminutive Peter Rono of Kenya took over the pace and gradually started to wind the pace up but nobody took him too seriously. World 800m medallist Peter Elliott, future European champion Jens-Peter Herold and world mile record-holder Cram were placed on his shoulder.
Despite their efforts though no one could pass Rono, who looked back 13 times in the last 200m, and won his first significant race in 3:35.96 by around two metres. At the age of 21 he had became the youngest Olympic 1500m winner in history. Despite his youth, Rono never won a race of note again.
Elliott, who had been having pain-killing injections, just about held off Herold and Cram, who missed a medal by 0.06 of a second.
As in the 800m, Britain has a glorious past in this event, having won five gold medals.
Railway driver Charles Bennett won the 1900 Olympics aided by two of the favourites refusing to compete because the race was on a Sunday.
World record-holder Harold Wilson just lost out in 1908 but Britain went one better in Stockholm in 1912 when Arnold Jackson sprinted past Abel Kiviat on the line to win in 3:56.8.
Britain won again in 1920 in Antwerp but more easily as Albert Hill completed an 800m and 1500m double aided by Philip Baker running at his shoulder throughout. Baker won a noble Peace prize in 1959.
Henry Stallard won a bronze in 1924 while John Cornes won silver in 1932.
Britain had a top six finalist in eight of the next nine Games but failed to win a medal until 1980.
Sebastian Coe ran a poor tactical race in the earlier 800m and finished a well beaten second to team-mate Steve Ovett, who had won 42 consecutive 1500m and mile races going into Moscow.
After a slow first two laps, Jurgen Straub of East Germany started a long run for home and accelerated. Coe followed and sprinted past him 100 metres out to complete a 52.2 last lap to win by four metres. Ovett, who had easily beaten Straub in all their previous races, seemed to lack his usual motivation after winning the 800m and lost his unbeaten record in third.
In Los Angeles in 1984, Coe who had had a poor 1982 and 1983, finished second again in the 800m behind Joaquim Cruz but then saw off the challenge of Steve Cram in the last 200 metres to retain his 1500m title in an Olympic record 3:32.53.
Ovett dropped out with chest pains after challenging for a medal early on the last lap.
» 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 1500m feature, including a complete list of medallists and further facts and stats, see the November 19, 2015, edition of AW magazine