Time to take a quick look at the middle-distance races in Rio with an analytical eye.
I will add videos here if I ever find them.
Fast heats have become very typical in the men’s 800m heats in this decade. More often than not, the runner who sets a fast pace is one of the favorites in the race. Other runners should therefore have a very simple goal in their minds: just follow the favorite.
Heat 3 in the men’s 800m provides a great example of one athlete who finds success by following the favorite, and another who fails to follow the favorite and runs a miserable race. van Rensburg from South Africa is the first athlete and Murphy from the USA is the second.
Presumably these athletes have seen David Rudisha run on TV before facing him in this heat. With that viewing experience in mind, one would think that their pre-race strategy for the 100-200 straight should be to compete for second place in lane 1, behind his back.
It’s interesting to watch van Rensburg and Muprhy as they come out of the first curve. They’re essentially even and they can already see that Rudisha will take the lead. Murphy does not recognize the tactical importance of this moment, so he let’s van Rensburg go ahead and take second place. That’s not a big mistake in itself, but he then moves out to lane 2, gets into all kinds of trouble and wastes a great amount of energy just to keep up with the pace.
van Rensburg, on the other hand, runs the perfect race for an underdog with a 1.46 season best. He just stays behind Rudisha all the way and saves his strength. He gets a bit lucky on the 500-600 straight when Rudisha accelerates and leaves van Rensburg a few steps behind. Someone might fill the gap between them…but the athlete next to van Rensburg happens to be Murphy, who certainly doesn’t have any energy to spare now, after his adventures in the outside lanes. So van Rensburg gets a free path in the inside lane all the way and secures qualification, while Murphy struggles to fourth place but still qualifies as a fast loser.
It will be interesting to see if Murphy learns his lesson: follow the favorite and fight for second place behind him on the 100-200 straight.
Heat 4 provides another good example of how to follow the leader. Alfred Kipketer may not be Rudisha, but he has run sub 1.44 this year, more than a second faster than anyone else in this heat. He goes out fast and Algeria’s Hethat takes second place behind him. At the 200m mark Hethat has clearly set himself up for an easy qualification: he has the second fastest season best in this field and he’s following the favorite. What could go wrong?
But then Hethat loses his nerve at the 300m mark, presumably because he finds the pace too slow. He intentionally leaves a gap to Kipketer and pushes his way outward. But Kipketer is still keeping a good pace at 53,5 seconds, so it’s clearly a bad decision for Hethat to give up his position behind the favorite. The Danish runner Bube recognizes the open gap ahead of him and moves past Hethat in lane 1, into second place behind Kipketer.
Bube qualifies with relative ease even though he only had the 7th fastest season best in this heat. Hethat performs a great 300m sprint in the second lane, but only secures his qualification with a very narrow margin and maximum effort.
Heat 5 provides an interesting example of what might happen when the early leader is not a favorite. The Spaniard de Arriba, who leads through the first lap, is overtaken by every opponent on the 500-600 back straight. Fortunately for the others, they all show good tactical awareness and seem to recognize what is about to happen on the back straight. Everyone moves outward to avoid getting stuck behind de Arriba.