“I know on the big stage it is not easy to beat me,” says David Rudisha softly.
That’s not surprising—Rudisha is never noisy.
Not when he was winning his first Olympic gold at the 2012 London Games with a world record time of 1:40.91, the only athlete to run 800m under 1 minute, 41 seconds. Not when he was successfully defending the title at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Not when he won two World Championships gold medals in 2011 (Daegu) and 2015 (Beijing). Not when he’s interacting with his peers. And not when he recollects his gold-studded career, sitting by the poolside of a luxury Mumbai hotel as the brand ambassador of the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon that was held on 15 January.
In athletics’ rock ‘n’ roll age, with Usain Bolt and Mo Farah emerging as icons with signature styles, the British press hailed Rudisha as the “greatest runner you have never heard of”. That was in 2012. The soft-spoken, towering runner breaks into a chuckle when asked if he will have a signature move—like Bolt’s lightning or Farah’s Mobot—if he wins his third gold at Tokyo 2020.
“I don’t think so,” says the Kenyan. “That’s not me. People like me for what I am.”
What he is, is the greatest 800m runner in the world. No frills attached. Tall and lean, Rudisha skims the track with effortless grace, his long limbs working up a hypnotic motion as he wins the race with practised certainty. The 28-year-old has run the three fastest and six of the 10 fastest times ever recorded in 800m. His win in London was described by the great Sebastian Coe as the “most extraordinary piece of running I have probably seen”. Coe, who was the chairman of the organizing committee at the London Olympics, won two Olympic golds in 1,500m but was never able to crack the 800m code at the Olympics.
“I started my athletics in 2005-06 as a junior, started running professionally in 2007. I missed the Beijing Olympics in 2008, which means I prepared more than seven years for London,” says Rudisha.
“There was pressure from the family. My father (Daniel) was an Olympian and had won the silver (4x400m) at the 1968 Games. He was my idol. I wanted to, once at least, participate in the Olympics, maybe win a medal, maybe achieve more than him. Then there were predecessors like Wilson (Kipketer) and Coe. They were fantastic 800m runners but never won the Olympic gold. I had that pressure. I kept thinking ‘why these world record holders don’t get it right during big events’. So I had a point to prove. I really went there courageously. I didn’t want to make the mistake of staying with the pack. I hit the stride from start to finish.”
That, more than anything else, has been Rudisha’s signature style. He likes to lead and lead well. As one of the more senior runners and well-liked figures in the 800m field now, he is not afraid to reveal his tactics to competitors. Not really rivals—he hasn’t had a steady rival through his career, and doesn’t need one to push him.
He had finished third in Kenya’s Olympic trials for Rio, but by the time the Olympics arrived, he was ready to defend his crown.
“Winning in Rio was a lot more meaningful to me,” says Rudisha, who became the first person since Peter Snell in 1964 to defend the 800m gold.
“I am strong mentally. I know that you cannot just beat me that easily. Sometimes, I just don’t accept it mentally.
“I was the defending champion (in Rio) and the one to look up to. They (competitors) come and ask me how I’m running it. I am honest. ‘Of course I am going to run in the front and this is the pace that we are going to do for the first 400m, after that all the best.’ After 400 is when you start feeling the weight, going down to the back straight, the last 300m. The legs become heavier. I say 800m starts after 600m. When it comes to championships, I’m very strong. I don’t like to make mistakes.”
For Rudisha, running 800m is a perfectionist art. It is where the explosiveness of sprinters and the endurance of long-distance athletes meets. While Kenya throws up marathon and long-distance runners regularly, Rudisha, who says he’s built more like a sprinter, has remained their most consistent athlete in the last decade. To celebrate his breakthrough London success, his fellow Maasai people slaughtered 50 cows for a feast.
“There have been thousands of athletes to come out of Kenya, but there aren’t many from the Maasai community,” explains Rudisha. “My dad was probably the first one. So for them to have an athlete to win an Olympic gold, with a world-record time, was huge.”
While the largely pastoral Maasai community, familiar with Rudisha’s success now, didn’t indulge in any extravagant celebrations after the Rio triumph, they might do so if the 28-year-old brings back a third gold from Tokyo.
“That’s my next big target now,” says Rudisha, who believes that achieving the feat after the age of 30 won’t be impossible.