Simply Put: Paralympian beats 1500m Olympic timings — but there’s a catch

Abdellatif Baka’s was a Paralympics world record and Matthew Centrowitz’s had been the slowest timing over 1500m at the Olympics finals since 1932.

Written by Shivani Naik | Mumbai | Published:September 14, 2016 1:49 am
paralympics, paralympics 2015, rio paralympics, 1500 meter timing, 1500m olympics timing, 1500m timing, sports, rio olympics Algeria’s Abdellatif Baka narrowly wins the gold ahead of Ethiopia’s Tamiru Demisse in the men’s 1,500m T13 final in Rio. (Source: AP)

When Abdellatif Baka of Algeria won the 1500m of Rio’s Paralympics in the T13 category for moderate visual impairment, he had achieved something eye-popping. Clocking 3:48.29, his timing had beaten Olympic champion Matthew Centrowitz’s by 1.7 seconds. It immediately set news media abuzz and Twitter chattering about how the top four Paralympian finishers could’ve accomplished a hypothetical fairytale win over the able-bodied men who ran at the Havalange three weeks ago.

However two extremes were being juxtaposed to make the twin times almost meet — Baka’s was a Paralympics world record, and Centrowitz’s had been the slowest timing over 1500m at the Olympics finals since 1932. Here’s a sobering threadbaring of the Twitter euphoria:

What is the significance of Baka’s mark?
The disabled middle-distance runner shattered the 1500m Paralympic world record at three minutes 48.29 seconds for a gold. He erased the mark of Tunisian T12 runner Abderrahim Zhiou (3:48.31) — set at the London Paralympics in 2012 — by 0.02 seconds. Kenyan David Korir (3:48.84) and Brit David Devine (3:49.79) also had better times at London than what Centrowitz managed at Rio. Additionally to put the American Olympic champ in shade, Ethiopia’s Tamiru Demisse (3:48.49), Kenyan Henry Kirwa (3:49.59) and Baka’s brother Fouad who finished fourth in Rio’s T13 1500m (3:49.84) also clocked sub 3:50. As such, Baka’s was an expected progression of the Paralympics 1500-mark.

Could they have realistically beaten the able-bodied American Centrowitz in a free run for all?
No.

Why can the two 1500m races not be compared based solely on times?
1500m is a highly tactical race, even when elements are left out of the picture and isn’t uni-dimensional like a straight all-out 100m sprint that Usain Bolt wins. A 1500 is dynamic with each of its runners a variable capable of controlling the pace on a given day, and shepherding the entire pack to clock different splits over laps on different days. Centrowitz is said to have won a race “for the ages”, albeit dragging it out enough to pack in all the intrigue, that ended in the timing staying well off the world record of 3:26 and Olympic mark of 3:32.07. The American himself had clocked 3:35.17 – for a 4th place at London Olympics, and boasts a personal best of 3:30.40 – clearly proving that it was strategy alone that decided the Olympics final – not a career progression. Different pace for different race.

Why is Centrowitz an intelligent runner?
In February this year, Matt Centrowitz timed 3:50.63 winning over an indoor mile – 1609 metres, that’s the same time for 100m less at the Olympics with seemingly a similar tactical run. The first US Olympic winner at 1500 since 1908, had also won silver at the World Championships in 2013 with what was a 70s-80s time. But it took special talent to manage a timing throwback to the legend Paavo Nurmi’s times in the 3:50 range of 1924, and be crowned Olympic champ in 2016.

How did Centrowicz clock 3:50, a slow time and still win at Rio?
Centrowicz used what is commonly known as Fartlek Training – a strategy adopted and adapted brilliantly for the 2016 race. Fartlek means “speed play” in Swedish and it means you start with a jogging pace and then suddenly raise the speed and again peg it back to jogging pace before increasing the speed again. It’s exceedingly difficult to alternate between the slow-fast at such a high level event as the Olympic final. It means taking your foot off the gas pedal, and then mixing that with pressing onto the pump. Centrowicz mixed the two paces mind-blowingly, and it helped that he’s known for his final kick and could pull off a crazy sprint of 50.62 for his last lap.

What was the tactical brilliance?
Centrowicz, young in 1500 at age 26, controlled the race from the start – plough pulling the field for a slow first lap of 66.83 and an even more lulling soporific 69.76 in the second. He slow-moed the entire race by a frame or two, and the 1500 final field where everyone was capable of running under 3:32 ended up resembling bumber-to-bumper peak traffic at Peddar Road. The slow crawl included a tightly bunched crowd with the American closely guarding the pace and purposely slowing it down.

Why was the win a massive upset?
Asbel Kiprop of Kenya was favourite to win. But he slided to 6th. Everyone was skeptical of taking the lead and there were a dozen blocking attempts on those who wanted to break off and raise the pace. It was a nasty affair and the real free run started with 300m to go – till then it was tightly controlled by the American. Kenyan Kwemoi fell even in the jockeying for positions, but so slow was the pace of the race that he caught up 40 metres later. However parrying off the challenge of Kiprop, Centrowicz moved several gears to keep the winning lead.

What was the little intrigue to Baka’s Paralympics win being appropriated to fit Centrowicz’ Olympics time?
Centrowicz beat Algerian Taoufik Makhloufi in the 1500m Olympic final at Rio. Makhloufi was defending champ from London and as such it was a title lost for the Algerians, given the silver medallist came so close but couldn’t overtake the American. At the Paralympics, when Algerian Baka won, he sure superceded the American’s timing, but it would be foolish to superimpose the two races for timings.