David Rudisha glanced to his left twice as he came round the final bend, waiting for the challenge to come. It didn’t. He didn’t let it.
The world-record holder surged across the line to retain his Olympic title in the 800 metres on Monday, giving no one else a chance and becoming the first man in more than half a century to win back-to-back golds over two laps at the games.
“This is one of my greatest moments, to come here and defend my title,” Rudisha said. “There is nothing as great for an athlete as to maintain his performance.”
Rudisha won in 1 minute, 42.15 seconds, nothing on the incredible 1:40.91 he produced for his wire-to-wire win in London four years ago. But this was always going to be about the medal and not the clock, especially after a heavy downpour earlier in the evening left Rudisha and the others with a damp track at the Olympic Stadium. If there’s one thing the Kenyan hates, it’s running in the wet.
Rudisha still won well from Algeria’s Taoufik Makhloufi, who ran a national record time of 1:42.61 to add an 800 silver here to his gold in the 1,500 at the last Olympics. Clayton Murphy powered through in the final 50 metres for bronze and a PB of 1:42.93, overhauling France’s Pierre-Ambroise Bosse on his way to a long-awaited podium finish for the U.S.
It was the first medal in the 800 for an American since Johnny Gray in 1992.
“Super exciting to race him,” Murphy said of Rudisha, “ and hopefully not the last time I get to race him.”
Rudisha smiled at the end, a broad, beaming smile, relieved maybe after what started as a trying season when he lost a couple of times in the Diamond League and was beaten into third — third! - at the Kenyan trials. He freely offered up hugs to the other medalists, too, as he draped the red, black and green Kenyan flag across his shoulders once again.
His legacy as one of the greatest 800 runners was pretty firm already, but he cemented it in Rio de Janeiro: The 27-year-old Rudisha has now won four of the last five major titles and the only one missing - the 2013 worlds - he was injured for.
With no strong challenger coming at him — not in this race and not in any general sense, either — Rudisha has the potential to make history with a third straight gold in four years in Tokyo.
“He wants to be the best, he is the best at it, he knows he’s the best,” said American Boris Berian, who was eighth. “It’s that confidence right there. He takes it out and he has that confidence to hold on.”
Rudisha’s teammate, Alfred Kipketer, set a fast pace from the start - like a bullet, Rudisha said - and the defending champion had to hold himself back from getting into an early scrap. Instead,
Rudisha waited for the back straight to stretch out his long legs and move past Kipketer. He built a cushion, not a big one, but he never seemed likely to get caught. Those two quick looks to the left as he approached the home straight let him know that he had it.
Richard Snell of New Zealand was the last man to retain his Olympic title in the 800, at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
Some formidable recent 800 runners, including the current IAAF President Sebastian Coe and Wilson Kipketer, didn’t even win once in the 800 at the Olympics. Coe, an Olympic champion at 1,500, consistently says that Rudisha is one of the best athletes the sport has had.
For Rudisha, this victory was absolute confirmation, if he needed it, that he’s deserving of such praise from former champions.
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