This analysis is based on my guidebook to 1500m tactics, available here on thcson.com. This time I will analyze the men’s final in the London Olympics.
Race video on YouTube
Season bests and previous heats give the following classification for this heat:
Favorites: Makhloufi’s dominant sprints in both of his heats made him the primary favorite. Kiprop, Kiplagat, Chepseba and Willis were secondary favorites based on season bests.
Average contestants: Iguider, Gebremedhin, Ozbilen
Underdogs: Centrowitz, Manzano, Ali, Ingebrigtsen
The final was relatively fast, 400m 58,30 and 800m 1.58,63, possibly because some runners wanted to neutralize Makhloufi’s sprint.
This is a strange start. The primary pre-race favorite Makhloufi goes out very fast and looks set to take the lead, but Iguider goes through a lot of trouble to move behind Makhloufi’s and go past him. It is hard to see why Iguider so desperately wants to avoid running behind a favorite in the inside lane, but perhaps the excitement just gave him an extra burst of adrenaline. Ingebrigtsen and Ali also seem assertive with their fast starts. Kiprop takes it easy, which leaves him at the back of the field.
Iguider does not intend to keep a fast pace, so Ali and Chepseba pass him easily on the 200-300 straight. Kiprop also moves up on the outside, but for some reason he does not latch onto Chepseba. One would assume that second position in the green queue, behind a compatriot whose also a favorite, would be ideal for Kiprop. Instead, his primary rival Makhloufi moves into that green position. If Kiprop would have kept up with Chepseba, Makhloufi could have been enclosed in a blue position instead, forcing him to make more difficult tactical decisions in the later stages of the race. Kiprop never manages to move up after this initial hesitation. He seems to have had a very bad day.
Ali keeps the pace fast and the other runners settle in good order into two queues. Absolutely nothing changes in the field during the second lap. As they come through 800m in 1.58,63, it’s clear that pace hasn’t been fast enough to neutralize Makhloufi’s sprint, so the Kenyans could perhaps look to cooperate in a long and fast surge. Unfortunately for Chepseba, he’s the only one of the three Kenyans who’s anywhere near the lead. He takes the front position at 900m. Makhloufi has kept an eye on Chepseba, as he should have, and he immediately moves one step forward in the green queue when Chepseba takes the lead.
Centrowitz also makes a good tactical move in going outward on the 800-900 straight. He has first position in the red queue behind Ali, but Ali is an underdog and has been keeping the pace for a long time, so staying put behind him would probably leave Centrowitz boxed in when the surge begins. By moving one step outward Centrowitz takes first place in the green queue just as Chepseba takes the lead, which is clearly an excellent tactical position.
The surge begins as Chepseba takes the lead. Willis and Ingebrigtsen seem to be in trouble on the inside in the 900-100 curve because they’re stuck behind Ali. Luckily for them, Ali decides to fight his way outward instead of following Chepseba, so Willis and Ingebrigtsen both get to move one step forward in the red queue for free. This is pure luck on their part, but it puts them both in good position behind pre-race favorites in the inside lane.
On the outside, Gebremedhin and Kiplagat move up in the 900-1000 curve. Kiplagat probably goes all the way out to lane 3 to move past Gebremedhin. These are good tactical moves by them both, because the outside routes would probably have been blocked by Iguider (whom they both pass in the curve) if they had waited to the 1000-1100 straight. Since this is the final and the competition is very even, the price for a good position on the outside is higher than it was in the heats.
Kiplagat moves up to Makhloufi’s shoulder at 1000m. Makhloufi again makes the right tactical move as he blocks Kiplagat by moving forward, thus avoiding the boxed-in blue position. As a pre-race favorite with a strong sprint, he clearly makes the right decision. All pre-race favorites except Kiprop are at the front as the last lap begins. Centrowitz, who scored a medal the year before in Daegu, is among them.
The sprint begins at 1100m, as it often does in the final. The pace is so fast through the 1100-1200 curve that noone can change positions. Makhloufi strikes at 1200 as he did in the heats. Chepseba cannot respond and the field spreads out widely. The only tactical question is when runners at the back of the group pass Chepseba. Centrowitz and Willis are slow to react to Makhloufi’s move, letting Kiplagat, Gebremedhin and Iguider all pass them and Chepseba on the outside. Judging from the final stages of the sprint Willis may already have been out of energy at 1200, but Centrowitz comes close to a medal, so in retrospect he probably should have sprinted past Chepseba on the 1200-1300 straight instead of in the curve.
Manzano’s sprint is a sight to behold, so it’s worthwhile to recap his earlier tactics during the race. His starting position gave him a position in the green queue for the first lap, then he ran close to the back of the red queue for the rest of jog. When Chepseba initiated the surge he stayed inside behind Ingebrigtsen and actually seemed to have trouble keeping up at the 1000m mark. One would think that an underdog cannot have any chance of sprinting successfully from so far behind, especially in a final. But he runs the final 200 in 26,5 while Kiplagat and Gebremedhin only manage 28,9 and 28,1, respectively. Ingebrigtsen runs 27,1 for the final 200, passing both Gebremedhin and Kiplagat to take fifth place.
With three underdogs in the top 5, this race is a testament to how much underdogs can achieve with smart tactics on a good day. It goes without saying that the differences between underdogs and others is small in a championship final. But the important tactical lesson which Manzano and Ingebrigtsen exemplify is that a fast finish can be incredibly effective in the final straight even against favorites. Many favorites run the last lap, if not the entire race, in the outside lanes. Kiplagat and Gebremedhin did so from 900 to 1300m. The price they pay for that outside running can be high in the final sprint, so underdogs with conserved energy have every reason to keep hope alive to the very end of the race.
As for the victor, there have been allegations of cheating due to his surprising improvement from the year before, but at least in terms of tactics he proved himself a worthy champion. He was twice at risk of being boxed in and responded on both occasions immediately with the right decision.