The startling news of the week was from the Rio Paralympics. In the men’s T13 1,500m final, the first four finishers all recorded times less than three minutes and 50 seconds.
Some context here: T13 refers to a particular degree of visual impairment. While T13 athletes are hardly totally blind, their vision is less than 10% that of someone with regular 20/20 vision. One description gives you some idea: these athletes “can make out shapes with the help of glasses”.
There are classifications for athletes with more severe visual impairment too: T12, T11 and T20 (which specifies some degree of intellectual impairment too).
In track events, T11 athletes run with a sighted guide runner, their hands coupled together. For T12, such a guide is optional. But T13 athletes have enough vision that they don’t need a guide. In fact, watching them run at the Paralympics, you would be hard-pressed to tell them apart from Olympic athletes: their bodies are every bit as lean and muscled, their running every bit as smooth and graceful.
And their times, in their chosen races, are similar too. Which brings me to what’s startling about my mention above of 3.50. That was the gold medal time for the men’s 1,500m in the Rio Olympics, recorded by the US’s Matthew Centrowitz.
In other words, the top four T13 1,500m finishers—Algeria’s Abdellatif Baka (gold), Ethiopia’s Tamiru Demisse (silver), Kenya’s Henry Kirwa (bronze) and Baka’s brother Fouad (fourth)—all ran the 1,500m faster than Centrowitz did. Makes you wonder why their countries didn’t send these athletes to the Olympics too. On the face of it, their timings certainly qualified them to be there.
There is, of course, a catch there, and I say that without meaning in any way to disparage the efforts of the Paralympic runners. These four did indeed finish faster than Centrowitz’s gold-medal time—but that 3.50 he recorded is the slowest to win the 1,500m at the Olympics in 84 (!) years.
What’s more, it’s a full 26 seconds slower—an almost unimaginable gap in a race as short as this one—than the world record. (It’s less than a 10th of a second faster than the women’s world record.) In fact, the world record dipped below Centrowitz’s mark all the way back in... 1930.
It’s also over 10 seconds slower—another vast gap—than the times Centrowitz himself posted in the first round and for his third-place finish in the semi-final.
Considered like that, the real question is not why those Paralympic athletes didn’t run in the Olympics. Instead, it’s this: what was going on in that Olympic 1,500m race? Why was it so slow?
What it was, really, was one of the more fascinating events of the Rio Games. Turns out Centrowitz ran a calculated, clever, strategic race. Maybe he suspected he could not beat his competitors if everyone simply ran their best times. So, he thought about it and figured that his best chance at gold would be in a slow race. Or maybe he came ready to run fast or slow, whatever happened.
In any case, slow is what happened, and almost as if Centrowitz choreographed it. And yet, how was he able to ensure a slow race?
While in no sense meaning to equate or even compare my minimal athletic skills to Centrowitz’s, the race reminded me of a 1,500m that I ran in my distant youth. The favourite to win it was a boy two classes senior to me. But for much of the race, I held him off, not letting him overtake me. Something then changed and he eventually won. Still, I had stayed in front of him for a long time without really running my fastest.
Something like that took place with the 1,500m at Rio. The overwhelming gold-medal favourite was Kenya’s Asbel Kiprop, world and 2008 Olympic champion. But from nearly the start, Centrowitz shoots to the front of the pack and stays there. He spends most of the first half of the race almost jogging, and somehow the other runners stick with that leisurely pace too.
Closely bunched, the whole lot jog like this twice around the track. Perhaps the others in the race think they have time to catch Centrowitz, whose lead is minimal anyway. Once in a while a runner tries to pass Centrowitz, who jogs a little faster, and the man falls back, seeming to think better of it. There’s time still, you can almost see him thinking. No need to expend energy just yet.
Somehow, Centrowitz has managed to get into the heads of everyone else in the race, so much so that nobody really tries to whoosh past him and break free of the pack. With about 500m left in the race, a runner from Djibouti does nose ahead. But Centrowitz squeezes past him a few seconds later. Then the last lap is one all-out adrenaline-pumping race for the finish.
More than one runner makes his move, jockeying desperately for the lead. But Centrowitz is now in overdrive, running swift and hard. He never looks in trouble as he holds them off, as he shows that he actually does have the pace to match his gumption and intelligence. The gold is just reward for the remarkable way he controlled this race and then won it. (Kiprop, for his part, finished sixth.)
So yes, those four Paralympians did run faster than Centrowitz. Watching them and other Paralympic athletes compete, I can’t help feeling inspired by everything they must overcome to do what they do so well.
There’s all that. But if they were running the same race, would they have beaten Centrowitz?
In a word: no.
Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His latest book is Final Test: Exit Sachin Tendulkar.
His Twitter handle is @DeathEndsFun
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