There was spontaneous applause. It erupted even before the video replay had ended. On screen, David Rudisha — with long meaningful strides — galloped from start to finish, ahead of the pack to win the 800m race at the 2012 London Olympics. Here was an athlete who challenged the ‘last-kick strategy’ — he didn’t care much for the tradition of sticking with the pack till 600 metres before pushing ahead. He dominated from the start till the very end. And it wasn’t a hasty sprint. Each step was measured, complemented with an equally elegant oscillation of his long arms. He became the only athlete to break the 1:41 minute mark in an 800m race. A memory that even five years later brings up goosebumps and inspires applause.
Meanwhile, Rudisha himself sits on stage, smiling calmly.
He remembers the race fondly, as his first ever Olympic triumph. More so because it lifted a special kind of pressure off his shoulders. His father Daniel had represented and won for Kenya a silver medal at the 1968 Olympics. David had to match that tally. “My father was an Olympian in 1968. There was family pressure as well. And it was my first Olympics, so going there was a huge thing in my career,” he recalls, in his first trip to India as the event ambassador of the Mumbai Marathon.
Four years later, he’d defend his title in Rio. And now he’s aiming for an unprecedented third at Tokyo 2020. “That is my main aim. It’s always good to give yourself a target and something to work on. I know I will be around 31 by 2020, but I’ll still be within a good bracket to compete and contest with the competition. I still feel I have a lot left in me,” he says.
In a new challenge, Rudisha finds motivation. It’s what he asserts makes the medal won at Rio more important than the one he won in London four years earlier. “Rio was different. To defend a title is more meaningful to me,” he says. “Right now I’m thinking about 2020 and that keeps me motivated. I know I have three years for that and I have to get strong.”
In a career decorated with accolades, which includes two World Championship titles, Rudisha is considered the greatest 800m runner ever. Among the top 10 timings in the category, six belong to Rudisha — including the top three. The world record itself was one that he set at London 2012, a race often touted ‘The Greatest 800 Metres Race Ever.’
It’s a race that worked as inspiration for him to return to running when he injured his knee a year later. “I’ve watched the London final several times. It motivates me. When I was really down at some point, never thought I’d be back on the track. The mental challenges to get fit again and reach where I am. Then to win the world title in 2015 was big encouragement,” he adds.
At Rio, he confirmed his status as the greatest 800 m runner the sport has seen. And he’s hoping to use that reputation to inspire upcoming runners from his country, just as he was motivated by a former great in the sport. “I come from the Maasai community, and one of the runners who lived nearby was Billy Konchellah, who won two World Championships in 800m. I knew he lived just a few kilometres away from home and it motivated me to be like him.”
Looking back at his career however, he remembers being egged on to achieve greatness in as early as 2010, two years before his first Olympic Games. “Seb Coe (Sebastian Coe) and Wilson (Kipketer) never won an Olympic title in 800m. They were asked a question about it, and they said Rudisha is here. He’s the one who will answer that,” he recalls.
And it was in Coe and Kipketer that he found the inspiration to change his running tactics. Watching online videos of the legends, he decided to surge ahead early in races rather than stick with the pack till closer to the end. “If you want to win the race, you can’t be staying with the pack. You have to go out there and make your pace. Only then can you achieve. You have to go out there courageously and make things work for you.”