In this tactical analysis I will be using the vocabulary I developed in my guidebook to middle-distance tactics, available here on thcson.com. This time I will analyze men’s round 1 and heat 2 at the London Olympics.
Race video on YouTube
Determined by season bests as reported in the start lists.
Average contestants: Driouch, Brannen, Bustos, Özbilen, Baddeley, Aarrass, Wolde, Wheating
Underdogs: Sandells, Shaween (although his 3.31 record from 2011 might justify a move to the upper categories), Jurkevics, Mohamed
This heat also included one inferior runner who fell behind early.
This heat was somewhere between slow and fast, with split times 57,81 – 2.00,03 – 2.58,57.
Two runners starting at opposite sides of the track are of interest in this start. Sandells starts on the inside and seems to make a deliberate acceleration to the front. He clearly would be very tightly boxed in had he allowed Bustos to take the lead. His pre-race strategy must be to avoid being boxed in and he carries it out successfully. Wheating, starting on the outside as number 14, wisely utilizes the space left open by runners 9-13 as they push inward too early. Wheating doesn’t start very fast but looks to his left, sees that the field is four runners wide there and decides to move up to second place as the curve begins. This illustrates how outside starters can make tactical decisions in the start while inside runners cannot.
The jog is uneventful in this race, as Sandells leads the field. It’s interesting to contrast the tactics employed by the underdogs Sandells, Shaween and Jurkevics in the jog. Sandells stays in front, keeps a steady, slow pace and makes no effort to get away from his position. For an underdog in the lead this is probably the worst possible tactic. Jurkevics on the other hand runs restlessly on the outside, often moving outward instead of inward. He spends a lot of extra energy particularly in the curves 500-600 and 700-800. A favorite such as Kiplagat can afford this, but an underdog can not. Shaween ends up in third place in the red queue and stays there throughout the jog, exactly as an underdog should.
Sandells accelerates the pace in the surge to stay in front. At this point of the race this might be the only possibly tactic for him. If the runner beside him had been pre-race favorite Kiplagat from 1000-1100, then the right tactical move for Sandells would certainly have been to let Kiplagat take the lead and try to follow him. But Kiplagat stayed on the outside in third or fourth place in the surge, with no intention to take the lead.
This heat is so fast that the sprint is not crowded. The top runners pass Sandells with ease and the qualifiers clearly separate themselves from the rest. Shaween’s patience is impressive from 1200-1300 as he remains in lane 1 behind Sandells to the end of the straight. He takes the risk that he might be stuck behind a former leader in the curve. This could have been costly since Sandells fades badly in the second sprint.
I would think that Shaween’s calm derives from the way he’s feeling – he’s clearly a capable sprinter with a lot of strength left. But also, this is a heat where the six first runners go through by right, and a heat which has been run at a reasonable pace, so the odds are good that he will have enough time and room to move into the top six even if he has to pass Sandells in the curve.
Wheating is not as calm as Shaween when he chooses to move out at 1150 instead of in, where a place behind Bustos is waiting for him. Wheating runs the entire lap in lanes 2 and 3 and actually qualifies for the next round with his time. He doesn’t seem to have the ability to switch pace quickly, since his closest opponents clearly accelerate away from him at 1200. But he does maintain his speed better through the long sprint. Runners whose strength is maintaining speed may indeed need to be on the outside in the sprint where there’s less chance of disturbance.