This analysis is based on my guidebook to 1500m tactics, available here on thcson.com. This time I will analyze the men’s first semifinal in the London Olympics:
Race video on YouTube
Season bests (as reported in the start list) give the following classification for this heat:
Favorites: Makhloufi, Kiprop, Gebremedhin
Average contestants: Driouch, Murray, Gregson, Kowal, Moustaoui, Shaween (both Moustaoui and Shaween have slow season bests but fast times from 2011)
Underdogs: Ingebrigtsen, Wheating, Manzano
The beginning was the slowest men’s race in the Oympics: 400m 1.03,73 and 800m 2.07,20. However, the surge was fast.
This is an interesting start because two favorites (Makhloufi & Kiprop) and one underdog (Ingebrigtsen) seem anxious to lead. Starting sixth from the inside, Makhloufi is fastest and takes the inside lane after about 50m. Inside starters Ingebrigtsen and Driouch also start very fast and Ingebrigtsen even passes Makhloufi before the curve. In principle there shouldn’t be a reason to pass a favorite who wants to lead, but Ingebrigtsen’s move may be a reaction to Makhloufi slowing down at 80m. In any case, Ingebrigtsen gets lucky when Kiprop, another pre-race favorite, decides to accelerate and take the lead. Kiprop may not have intended to lead. Makhloufi slowing down on the inside seems to move him in front unexpectedly.
Kiprop runs the first curve in lane 2, clearly reluctant to lead the group. But Ingebrigtsen wisely stays half a step behind him in lane 1 to avoid the lead position. This is good tactical running from them both, and it results in a slow first lap, as one would expect. Kiprop and Ingebrigtsen wait for someone to move up from the back of the group, but this does not happen.
Realising that the pace is slow, Murray makes a nice move on the first straight (200-300) all the way from the back to third place. He gets past the entire group without wasting any energy at all. He must have thought about, and perhaps executed, this tactic before.
Not much changes from 300m to 600m. It’s starting to feel likely that only five direct qualifiers from this semifinal will make it to the final as the field passes 600m at 1.35.
In this race the surge starts very early as a collective acceleration at 650m. The pressure building up around Gregson disturbs his rhythm and he jumps to the front partly to avoid the pushing. Kiprop doesn’t want to be boxed in, so he moves past Gregson on the inside. Gregson did not seem too keen on taking the lead in the first place. The sudden movements from 650-720m are so quick and unpredictable that it’s largely a matter of luck where runners in the middle of the pack find themselves in the curve (700-800). Kowal makes a good move forward on the straight (600-700) and even takes the lead for a moment, but he’s apparently not expecting the pace to increase, so he slows down at the exact moment when Gregson jumps forward. Much of the gains Kowal made on the straight are lost when the curve begins, as other runners pursue Gregson and Kiprop more actively. This illustrates the difficulty of tactical running in a very slow race. You have to be ready to respond to new events, even when you have just successfully completed your previous tactical move.
Kiprop now sets such a good pace (57 seconds) that everyone pretty much stays in the same position from 700 to 1100m. The others clearly have their hands full in trying to follow him. At this point Kiprop’s only tactic is to lead all the way to the finish by himself. If he slows down, he will soon be boxed in.
The 700-1100 lap is tough for the runners in the outside lanes. Gregson, Murray, Moustaoui, Gebremedhin and Shaween run both curves in lane 2. In order to cover the lap in 57 seconds, they in fact have to run at 55,9 seconds / 400m pace. However, I don’t think any of them could have reasonably avoided lane 2 in this lap. In a slow race, especially a semifinal, all runners are going to feel fresh when the surge begins. There will not be any open gaps on the inside until someone tires. As we see in this race, that can take a while.
Inside runners such as Driouch, Ingebrigtsen and Manzano have the good fortune of running a short distance in the 700-1100 lap, but they still face the risk of being boxed in as the final lap begins. Kiprop saves them from this fate by accelerating again at 1100m. Gregson, Murray, Moustaoui, Gebremedhin and Shaween are forced to run yet another curve in lane 2 since the green queue fails to make any progress over the red queue. Makhloufi ran the 700-1100 lap in blue position. He now utilizes the space left open by fading outside runners to move into better striking position as the sprint begins.
Neither stage of this sprint is tactical since every runner seems to be running pretty much at maximum speed already on the back straight (1200-1300). However, it’s worth noting that underdogs Manzano and Ingebrigtsen manage to outsprint many stronger opponents. Their inside positions in the surge clearly had something to do with their success in the sprint, and Kiprop’s tactic in the front clearly benefited them. Moustaoui makes the unfortunate mistake of letting Ingebrigtsen pass him on the inside just before the finish line.