The Paralympic Games is all about triumph over adversity and a demonstration of the nothing-is-impossible spirit than pushing one to the limit that is the Olympics which precedes it.
Thus, if the Rio Games in August reflected the famous line of American coach Henry Russell Sanders ‘winning isn’t everything, it is the only thing’, many around the world applaud the Paralympic champions and participants alike for merely getting to the start line, surmounting all their physical disabilities and the skeptics all around them who said they wouldn’t be able to do it.
That is why the men’s 1,500m final in the T13 category --- for athletes with partial visual impairment --- at the Paralympics this week has garnered massive interest and has even been trending on social media.
The reason for this interest is a comparison with the 1500m in the Rio Games for the able-bodied. A strong African flavour stood out in both the races, but Algerian Abdellatif Baka led home the runners in the Paralympic race, clocking a record 3 minutes, 48.29 seconds.
The winning effort eclipsed what American Matthew Centrowitz clocked in winning the race in the Olympics – 3:50.00.
For all the winning-is-all-that-matters attitude, the world still loves the underdog, and hence the Paralympians --- the first four in the 1500m T13 final ran faster that Centrowitz --- have been hailed for doing better than their able-bodied counterparts.
This calls for putting the races in perspective. No doubt, the race in the Paralympics should be hailed for the sheer effort and fighting spirit that it embodies. But beyond being a fun stat to wave around, it cannot be compared with the race run days earlier.
Why? The 1500m race in the Rio Games proved tactical to the extreme, although it was still a shocker that the winning time was the slowest since 1932.
The 26-year-old American has a personal best of 3:30, and hence, we have to assume that he could have run much, much faster if someone else had set a faster pace. But Centrowitz controlled the race from the front, and the rest of the bunch obliged him, rather than attack and pull him out of his comfort zone.
The earlier two rounds had produced faster efforts. The fastest timing in the first round was 3:38.31. Centrowitz himself ran 3:39.31, though it was only the 15th fastest among those who made it to the semifinals.
But the steady progress, by doing just enough and preserving one for the big race, was evident as Centrowitz clocked the third fastest timing among those who qualified from the semifinals. His 3:39.61 in the second semifinal heat put him comfortably into the medal race.
Now, only the medal matters in the Olympics, but slow and steady is no recipe for success. Just ask Britain’s Steve Ovett, who won the ‘wrong event’ by upstaging compatriot and then world record holder Sebastian Coe in the 800m at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
But Ovett had to take the blame after a smarting Coe upstaged the 1500m favourite for the title a few days later. So, what happened? In a race that was a predecessor to the Rio final, the runners threw wary glances at each other and kept up a jogging pace for the first half of the race.
When the pace picked up in the final 700 metres or so, both Coe and Ovett responded, but the former --- the current International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) president is the only man to successfully defend the Olympic 1500m title --- ‘kicked’ with 300m left, and chased by Ovett on the final curve, kicked again. He is said to have run the last 100m in around 11.2 seconds to avenge the 800m loss.
Tactical running is what makes middle-distance races exciting, though Kenya’s David Rudisha has killed that fun by turning 800m races into a virtual start-to-finish sprint. The world record holder successfully defended the title in Rio.
Finland’s Lasse Viren, who achieved the 5000-10000m double-double at the 1972 and 1976 Olympics, wore down his rivals by suddenly injecting pace in mid race. The sudden spurts in certain laps would kill the ability of his rivals to sprint to the finish.
And for those who are not much into these duels, and would rather watch athletes set the track on fire, there is always Usain Bolt and Ethiopia’s Almaz Ayana, who surpassed the women’s 10000m world record by a staggering 14 seconds, winning in 29:17.45.