Wednesday, March 8, 2017

V7 N. 16 (2) Jon Hendershott's Most Memorable Men's Middle Distance Races


by Jon Hendershott

Part II—Men’s Middle-Distances.

Okay, okay, I’m back with my usual entreating comment: “I just couldn’t pick one most memorable performance!”  But, I couldn’t when thinking about the men’s 800.

I could have claimed Alberto Juantorena’s World Record 1:43.5 to rumble to the ’76 Olympic title, the first half of his unprecedented 400-800 double. He was called El Caballo (“The Horse”) for good reason as the Cuban showed in Montréal.
Then there was the WR 1:41.24 by Kenyan (later to be a Dane) Wilson Kipketer in Zürich ’97 as he followed up his Athens World Champs victory by slashing his own record by nearly a half-second. (Also see at the end of the 5000 section in Chapter III for some background on this record, and two others, from that very memorable Zürich affair.)
And there also was the current global mark, 1:40.91, clocked in London in ’12 for David Rudisha’s first Olympic title. As English writer Phil Minshull wrote for T&FN, Rudisha “decided to run the legs off everyone else.” It was stunning, as the Kenyan led the entire distance in a fabulous display of power and dominance.

Yet I did settle on just one two-lapper for my best. My topper came at the ’72 Munich Olympics—so you know what to expect. Young American Dave Wottle had tied the 1:44.3 World Record in winning the Trials in Eugene, wearing his trademark golf cap to keep his curly blonde locks under control. Yet a lot of fans favored the USSR’s Yevgeniy Arzhanov, the ’71 European champion and No. 1 World Ranker. Bowling Green’s Wottle was, after all, in not only his first Olympics but also his first international meet ever.
Plus, Dave had been bothered by a knee strain heading to Munich. His parents were on the T&FN Olympic Tour, as was his college coach Mel Brodt. Yet I didn’t want to bug them by continually inquiring about Dave’s health – even though I was chafing to ask. But the Wottles and Brodt likely wouldn’t have known much anyway. Dave was at the USA training camp in Austria and ’72 was light years away from today’s world of instant communication via cell phone, text and social media.

Then in the final, Wottle not only had to face Arzhanov, but the two outstanding Kenyans in Mike Boit and Robert Ouko, plus other European stars like Franz-Josef Kemper of West Germany and Andy Carter of Britain.

So when Dave slid right to the back of the pack early in the final, collective USA hearts probably sank appreciably. Ouko towed the field through a 24.7 opening 200, with Wottle trailing at 26.4. The pace lagged after that as both Kenyans split 52.3, with Arzhanov sixth at 52.9 and Wottle last at 53.5. Arzhanov assumed command down the second backstretch to lead at the 600 in 1:19.2.

Wottle, meanwhile, was clocking comparatively-consistent 200s of 27.1 and 26.2, yet trailed the Soviet by a half-second entering the homestretch. But Dave was on the outside and closing like a runaway freight train. He gradually picked off everyone ahead of him before finally catching Arzhanov with maybe three steps left in the race. The Soviet threw himself across the finish stripe, bouncing a couple of times on the surface.

But it was not enough as Wottle prevailed by a slim 0.03 in 1:45.86. Everyone in the stadium was roaring at the sheer competitiveness of the contest, but the Americans were especially—and understandably—delirious over Wottle’s win.

Boit, Wottle, Arzhonov
All three seem overcome by the moment but for vastly different reasons.

Dave himself must have been in a kind of fog, too. After the medalists received their awards (Boit finished 3rd; runner-up Arzhanov hung his head as though he had failed every single one of the multi-millions of his Soviet countrymen), they turned to face the flags for the playing of the U.S. national anthem—and Dave forgot to remove his golf cap. It was such an everyday part of his running garb that he simply left it on.

When told later in the media interview room of his mistake, Wottle put his hands over his face in shock, embarrassment and dismay. Yet I will bet my ranch (if I had one) that not a single American in Munich, or anywhere else, held it against Wottle. He had provided a thrilling, unforgettable example of a major part of the Olympic Creed: “to compete well.” For me, it was unforgettable.

The 800 at Munich click here to see the entire race ed.

1500 METERS:

Any Olympic final is a race combining strength, speed and tactical brilliance. But for me, no other Games 1500 final could outshine Seb Coe’s successful title defense at
Los Angeles in ’84.

Britain’s Coe, 27 at the time, had won the 1980 gold medal in Moscow to outduel rival Steve Ovett, who had scored an upset 800 victory. Most fans and pundits figured Coe to take the ’80 800 with Ovett claiming the 1500. But in the best Olympic tradition of producing upsets, Ovett had outrun Coe in the two-lapper. Then Coe turned the tables in the 1500.

Great Britain took a powerful 1-2-3 punch to LA, with Coe being the defender, Ovett having set the WR at 3:30.77 the previous September in Rieti and young Steve Cram having won the inaugural World Championships the prior summer in Helsinki.

But Coe had missed the global meet due to illness and had suffered a loss or two in the build-up to LA. So the English press—always ruthlessly critical of the UK’s sporting stars— seemed especially so toward the reigning Olympic champion, judging him as vulnerable as the Games neared.

And then Coe was outrun in the Olympic 800 by the young and powerful Brazilian Joaquim Cruz, who clocked 1:43.00 for an Olympic Record that lasted until the next U.S. Games 12 years later in Atlanta. Still, Coe had timed 1:43.64, certainly not chump change but more fuel for the fire stoked by the British media.

Plus Coe had shrugged his shoulders as he crossed the finish, as if to say (which he later verbalized), “I can’t complain, Cruz is a great champion.” But in a real shocker, defender Ovett placed last in 1:52.28.

In the LA 1500 final, Spain’s José Manuel Abascal led the Brits through 1000-meters, ahead of Coe (2:39.2) by two-meters, with Cram (2:39.6) and Ovett (2:39.8) following. Then in a stunner, Ovett stepped off the track just after the bell. He had battled bronchitis all spring and said his breathing at the Games wasn’t helped by LA’s notoriously smoggy air.

Meanwhile, Coe chewed up the final curve in a stunning 13-flat to enter the homestraight with a two-meter advantage. He clocked 13.1 for the final 100 and won by six-meters in 3:32.53, an Olympic Record that would last for 16 years. He outran Cram (3:33.40) by nearly a full second, with Abascal 3rd (3:34.30).

Then after he crossed the finish, the usually mild-mannered Coe let out his frustration as he ran back up the finish stretch and stopped in front of the British press section in the LA Coliseum. He pointed both his index fingers at the Brit scribes as if to say to them, “There, write about that, mates!” Coe, now the president of track’s governing body, the IAAF, had provided the most emphatic reply possible to his critics—by becoming the first, and so far only, man to ever win two Olympic 1500 titles.

Link to IOC excerpt of 1500   (This IOC film does not show finish but the clarity of segment of the race is terrific.)  ed.

The Full Race  1984


(Another memorable finish stretch for me: Leo Manzano’s storming 13.1 final 100—fastest of the London ’12 final—to close his 52.8 last lap, equal-quickest of the race, and claim an unlooked-for silver medal. For sure, a raspy-throat producer from yelling so loud, even if the unwritten ethos of press section is that scribes aren’t supposed to cheer on athletes. Sometimes it’s hard not to be human—and a fan.)

That London 1500 men's final

Thank goodness that the IAAF retained the mile as the only English-distance World Record, even as the federation changed records to all metrics in the mid-1970s. And thank goodness that Eamonn Coghlan could handle indoor tracks like no other runner.
The Irishman and Villanova grad simply possessed his own special talent for managing the curves and changes of rhythm inherent in indoor racing. On February 20, 1981, at San Diego’s Jack-In-The-Box Invitational, the then-28-year-old Coghlan sped 3:50.6 to come the closest yet to the then-mythical sub-3:50 barrier for the indoor mile.
Coghlan also claimed the 1500 record with his 3:35.6 en route split, after taking over from leader Steve Scott with two laps to run. Scott finished in an American Record 3:51.8, also under Coghlan’s previous record of 3:52.6 set in San Diego in ’79. New Zealander John Walker, the first man to duck under 3:50 outdoors in ’75, ran 3:52.8 for 3rd ahead of Ireland’s Ray Flynn (3:53.6). It was the deepest mile finish to that time.
The San Diego Sports Arena capacity crowd of 11,000 fans howled throughout the race, but when Coghlan made his move, as Walker said later, “Once Eamonn gets ahead at that stage, it’s over.”
Coghlan in the Wannamaker Mile at Millrose in 1981
Coghlan said, “My goal for the season was 3:50. Someone’s going to do it and I’d like to be the first.” Scott called the race “one of those near-perfect races.” Unforgettable, too.

Coghlan sub 3:50 in 1983 ( This is not the race Jon describes, but it will give you a clue to Coghlan's style indoors. ) ed.

(Next: men’s distances.)


Maybe I'm a little home boy but Wottle's win was THE most exciting of the races described. As we try to tell our runners year after year, It's where you are at the END of the race that counts.   Thanks, Jon..           Steve Price

Steve coached for many years at Bowling Green and in retirement at Findlay Univ.  ed. 

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