This analysis is based on my guidebook to 1500m tactics, available here on thcson.com. This time I will analyze women’s round 1 and heat 2 at the London Olympics.
Race video on YouTube
Season bests (as reported in the start lists) give the following classification for this heat:
Favorites: Martynova, Alptekin, Dobriskey, Hilali
Average contestants: Plis, Assefa, McKnight, Shumi, Sum, Simpson
Underdogs: Saholinirina, Fernandez, Sankuru, Roman
A slow heat at last, with intermediate times 1.10,78 and 2.23,47.
Martynova and Assefa might be the most interesting contestants in the start from a tactical perspective. Martynova starts second from the inside. As I mentioned in my guidebook, an inside starter who prefers to be in the green queue has to start slowly and move up from the back of the field. This is what Martynova does in heat 2 as she deliberately avoids the pack in front of her.
Martynova settles in at the back of the field and clearly recognizes in the first curve that the pace is very slow. She immediately takes advantage of this by passing Sum on the outside, improving her position quite a lot without expending almost any extra energy. That’s a good tactical move in any stage of the race.
Assefa, on the other hand, expends a lot of energy at the start without reaping any benefit at all. After a slow start she makes a full-speed sprint straight into the group, disrupting her (and others’) rhythm as she goes. She gains a few positions on the inside with her sprint, but it doesn’t seem worth the effort she put in.
The jog proceeds at a 1.12-1.13 / 400m pace, which is easy for all runners. When the jog is slow the surge can be expected to start early, so all athletes at the back of the field should at least consider a move to the outside as long as the pace is so slow that the field can be overtaken easily. Saholinirina, Shumi and Sum take advantage of this from 400 to 600. In contrast, pre-race favorite Martynova runs very passively on the outside as she falls back in the green queue in the same interval. This is not a fatal tactical error, but it means that she will have to work her way past the whole field again, with little to go before the surge begins.
Simpson, who should perhaps also have been considered one of the pre-race favorites, initially seems to react (at 550) and move outward after Saholinirina passes her, but she then runs passively as Shumi and Sum pass by. She ends up at the back of the green queue just ahead of Martynova, with the same problem. Both Martynova and Simpson should have moved further out when they realized they were about to be overtaken, especially on the straights. Even in the curves they could easily afford to run a few extra meters at this pace. Their tactical plan should have been to discourage other runners from moving past them by making the field wider. It requires a lot more work to pass a field which is three runners wide than one which is two runners wide.
The other favorites perform better in terms of jog tactics. Alptekin calmly stays first in the red queue behind the leading Fernandez. Hilali is first in the green queue on Fernandez shoulder. Dobriskey wisely hooks onto Alptekin when Assefa moves outward at 600.
The surge begins around the 900m mark, with two favorites (Simpson and Martynova) at the back of the field and the other three close to the front. The leader, Fernandez, is perhaps the most interesting athlete in the surge. As an underdog who’s led the race from the start, she’s in a terrible position. As I’ve explained in my guide, Fernandez’ only choice now is to resist overtaking as long as possible. She does exactly this until 1050m. Then she gets lucky when one of the pre-race favorites, Hilali, takes the lead as the final lap begins. Fernandez snaps onto Hilali and avoids being boxed in. This allows her to expend all her strength effectively in the sprint while staying in the inside lane. If Fernandez had been stuck behind an average contestant or an underdog at 1100m, she probably would have been boxed in much worse in the sprint.
It’s also interesting to note how limited the tactical options are for Simpson and Martynova in the surge. As the field spreads out after the 1000m point, it’s four runners wide and the pace is fast. Simpson and Martynova have no chance of passing the entire field before the curve begins. Their only option is to wait at the back of the group until the sprint.
Sum and McKnight both make good moves outside on the 1000-1100 straight. Shumi realizes this but moves out a bit too late when they’ve both already gone past her. Pre-race favorite Dobriskey stays cool on the inside and escapes the box easily just before the sprint begins. Clearly she benefits from Fernandez’ lucky break. If Fernandez had been passed by many outside runners, Dobriskey would have fallen much further back. But the pace at the end of the surge is so fast that the group begins to spread out, leaving just enough room for Dobriskey to get out. So even though the jog was slow in this race, the fast surge compensated and the sprint won’t be very crowded.
Since this has been a slow race, the athletes have to assume that the six direct qualifiers will be the only ones to go through. Not much changes on the final back straight 1200-1300. McKnight leads the field through the final curve at a quick pace. Martynova probably loses her qualification spot by slowing down slightly at the end, but no tactical decisions impact the outcome of this sprint.
Martynova and Simpson provided the best tactical lesson in this race. They were passive in the jog and fell behind. They did not seize their final opportunity on the 800-900 straight to move up before the surge. As a consequence, they were in a very disadvantageous positions when the sprint began. One of them managed to compensate for these tactical mistakes with a blazing sprint, the other did not.