Monte CarloIt was no ordinary meeting. For the first time ever, the past three World record holders in the men’s 800m - Alberto Juantorena, Lord Sebastian Coe, and Wilson Kipketer - along with David Rudisha, the current standard bearer, joined together to reminisce and discuss the record the quartet have held since July 1976.
"It's a privilege for us to be here so thank you from everyone," said Laura Arcoleo of the IAAF Communications Department, who organised the gathering for members of the international press corps in Monte Carlo for Sunday’s World Athletics Gala.
Juantorena, described as the "senior partner" of the gathering – indeed the Cuban legend celebrates his 60th birthday on Sunday (021) - listened attentively to Coe comment on the record he set at the 1976 Olympic Games. "Not only do I remember it but I remember seeing him in Montreal and thinking: 'I'm in the wrong distance!' so I knew exactly what it was.”
“When I broke it in Oslo (1:42.33),” Coe, now an IAAF Vice President, continued, “I wasn't expecting to break it. This (Juantorena) was a record which was sensational.”
Juantorena, who also serves on the IAAF Council, recalled how he learned that the record was no longer his.
"I have a clear picture because I was competing in the United States for the first time. The people who welcomed me said: 'We have news for you. One is good and one is bad.'
“The good news is that you are here. The second one is that Seb Coe broke your world record last night'. And then I realised it wasn't my world record anymore, it was Seb’s. Not only is he a good runner, he is a great man and I have the privilege to call him a personal friend."
Kipketer, talking about his two predecessors, said: "I don't remember that much as I was too young when Juantorena ran, and then when I started running Seb Coe was there at that time. I was in Kenya so television wasn't there so I didn't see too much. But when I came to Europe the names were there.
"When I started running my time was 1:45.70 and Seb had ran 1:41.73! It took me a while to say, 'Ok, that record has been there too long. It was almost 16 years when I broke it (1:41.24 - 1997).
"I thought if it can stay for another 16 years (laughter).. then Rudisha comes, so I know the history of 800s. But then saying that and talking about the Olympic champions, I think we are now leaving the history of the 800 to Rudisha."
Rudisha unaware he would be meeting the previous world record holders, said: "I am very surprised to see the former world record holders sitting together today. I know Wilson stays in Monaco, but I didn't know the other gentlemen were going to be here.
"It is not something that happens easily to see people sitting like this in a room so it's very good and I'm very happy to see them.”
Arcoleo revealed to more loud laughter: "Wilson had a crazy idea before we came into the room and he was thinking of asking you guys to run a 4x800 relay in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 (Olympics).”
"If you allow me to run on a bike, okay," quipped Juantorena while Coe responded, “You have 115 years between the two of us."
Coe's record lasted 16 years and Kipketer's 13 - how long do the men think Rudisha’s current record will stand?
"It will be around a bit," said Coe of Rudisha's new mark of 1:41.01 which he posted in Rieti on 29 August just a week after lowering Kipketer's time by 0.08 in Berlin's Olympic stadium.
"In the 800 I think it is still possible to run maybe under 1:40," said Kipketer.
"You never know the limits of the human being," was Juantorena's assessment.
The 800 Metres - doubling and the advantage of being a 400m specialist
Rudisha, asked about doubling at 800 and 1500, replied: "I came to realise it's not good for me. The way I was thinking with my coach that to get a good rhythm in the 800 you just have to run 800. Sometimes like when you run 1500 and you come back to 800 you might lose rhythm and it takes you time to catch up again.
"I had been running some 400s for speed at the beginning of the season and then I concentrated on 800. That is what I have been doing for the last two years and it has been working very well for me. Of course I kept that rhythm, I just run smoothly without struggling because if I change speed it will give me problems."
Juantorena on his transition to the two lap event, said: “Let's say in my case it's a little bit different because I was a quarter miler, my basic races were 400. But then I got the invitation as an athlete to compete in both events in Montreal. I refused the first offer. My coach said to me, ‘if they ask you run 800 and 400 say 'No.'
I was afraid because I didn't know which was the first race. The 400 was the second one - that's why I always talk about Italy. Italy is they keypoint of my career because the first time in my life that I run the 800 was in Formia, and I ran 1:45.36. I convinced myself, whether a political point of view or sentimental point of view, whatever you want to believe, that’s why I decide to run both. And then in Montreal we changed a little bit the strategy and philosophy of the 800. I passed (the bell) in 50.5 and the other runners, they ran the 800 and 1500. But I was a sprinter and that's why I had the opportunity to run easy the last lap. You analyse the history - I never ran the 800 until just two months before the Olympics. In Formia, in Havana and then Montreal.
Coe’s assessment: "It's a good example why the distance unlike any other attracts people from so many different backgrounds. If you're a 10,000 runner you tend to know that you're going to be a 10,000 runner for much of your life.
“But, “ he said, pointing first to Juantorena and then to Rudisha, “there's a guy that ran 4s, the guy that just runs 8s, and I didn't start out anywhere near 800. I started out as 3000 runner and running cross country.
“And I think 800 is the toughest distance on the track to get it right. It demands so many different things. It demands the endurance of a 5000 runner, it demands the speed of a world class 800 runner and it's interesting for me listening to this. I actually only felt comfortable at the distance when I could run a 1500 as well. I knew I was in very good shape for a 1500 when I knew that I'd also mastered the 800. So for me it was really important to do both. I think one of the risks we've had, the distance itself has continued to get quicker and these guys today are as good as they'll ever be.
“But I think when we took one of the rounds out of the 800 in Los Angeles (1984 Olympics) and we basically made it a three round competition with a day before the semis and the final, it may finally have ceased to become truly an endurance event. Now that's a personal view and that's why, although we've still got athletes at the very highest level, I think the strength at the distance isn't as strong as it used to be. If you go back through the ranking lists, 10th or 11th place now I'm guessing is not as quick as 10th or 11th, 10, 15 or 20 years ago. And I think that's probably because there's slightly less endurance needed because you don't have so many rounds to cover. That's a personal view."
And Kipketer's view: "For me, I could say talking about the rhythm of the 800. It's very important because as Seb Coe says it's a special event. It's a sprint, it's a long distance, or something in between. So to make a judgment is not easy. But I was working on that. I was running indoors, 1000 metres, working on going to the 1500. What happened was in 1998 after I was running well in 1997, I got malaria and lost all of my training. I just had to pick it up again and run 1500 and 800. You had to run 1500 in 3:29 to be in the top five in the world in those days. So running 1:41 and 3:29 I knew wasn't going to be easy. I ran 3:35 but so what, that was the reason I didn't want to move to 1500. The standard was too high.
Will Rushida be the first man under 100 seconds (1:40), or is it too soon to discuss this?
Coe: "If we really want to make his life impossible, we'll say yes!"
Juantorena: "Nothing is impossible."
Coe: "I'm not going to say that, because that's unfair for him but I think my gut instinct is that there is still some time to come out of David's performance."
Kipketer: "My opinion is that it is too early because now next year are the World Championships and the following year the Olympics to which he will have to give his time. But as I say and know the door is open for someone to run that time and I'm not putting the pressure on him because I think anybody can come along. In two years time we will see. There's young people coming now running 1:42 so is too early to say that."
Rudisha: "Running under 1:40 is far away. I think I was saying this year 1:40 might be possible and that is what I'm aiming for, though it depends on the system. Next year we have the World Championships, the Olympics the following year. That might sort of hinder some of forecast of a fast time. But I think myself 1:40 is possible.
"I started planning from last year when I broke the African record in Rieti which had stayed for 25 years. That is when I started thinking about breaking the world record. 1:42 in Nairobi is not easy, and I thought I could go for the world record. I told my coach and we discussed and decided to try in Berlin because I felt I was ready to try for it. That is how we planned form it.”
Why times are faster now than in Juantorena, Coe and Kipketer’s heydays:
Kipketer: "The different situations, the quality of the tracks maybe, inspiration, motivation obviously, the technology is different, so I think if we look at the clothes, the track, the shoes, but I think there are stronger guys (now).
“When we were running we were not that strong but when you look at David, he is a strong powerful guy. Maybe in a way looking back, the way Juantorena was running and moving was quite easy. Seb Coe was a little bit short like me but we had quick strides. Rudisha has very long strides. I think if you have to look and analyse these are different times and different ways of training. And now I think it's more professional than when I look back and I was training in Kenya when I was in school.
“Nobody knows the secret of the 800 because for the last 30 or 40 years there's only four people who have run under 1:43. It's not an easy event."
Juantorena:"I know only one thing, I'm very lucky that these three men came up when I'd retired." Coe replied: "We said that about you."
On the importance of crowd support:
Coe: "Particularly in a world record attempt because often, and I think back to when I broke the record in Firenze (1:41.73) in ‘81, I ran 700 metres on my own - certainly 600 metres. Often it's a lonely place, you're just running with no people around you so actually having the crowd getting excited in what you're doing and following your progress on the clock, is a massive help.”
Juantorena: "It’s very important. I remember in 1977 in Sofia (1:43.44), everyone was shouting (and clapping) and this motivated you and gave you inspiration and strength. The second man, he was 1:45.67. I was running like Seb, almost alone. The audience made all the difference giving you extra strength and the crowd in my opinion is part of our life, part of breaking records, part of everything."
Kipketer: "The audience is very important. In Zurich when I ran 48.3 for the first 400 the last 50m was like another one kilometre. The crowd were cheering me so I could not feel the pain but I managed to go home with 1:41.24 and this was for the people. I could feel the pain but I could still hear the noise."
Rudisha: "I think the crowd is very important. When I was running the pacemaker would only get me to 450 or possibly 500 then the last 300 I was alone. The only thing you could hear and see was the crowd cheering and you realise you are running fast and you need to push and know you are doing something special. The (world record 1:41:09) I broke in Berlin, the crowd was crazy and I said: 'Oh my God. The last 100 I have to push because I feel I'm going to do something.' The crowd, because they can see the clock are telling you, 'keep on, keep on'."
On the science and splits of 800 running:
Coe: "It's such an individual thing because we're all in the era now where actually you can do blood analysis, the chemistry, and treadmill work and all the physiology stuff that will tell you that anyway.
“The big advantage that these guys have (now) is actually the science of what they are doing is very exact. You can say somebody should go out in 49 and bits or 50 and bits. It really depends on everything from VO2 max to the economy and the maximum use of oxygen. Plenty of people cleverer than me will figure it out while we work with physiologists. It's almost impossible to answer that question.
“I think in future the improvements on the distance normally come by people covering the distance early on. The biggest shift before this guy (Juantorena) in 800 running was Rudolf Harbig the German athlete. He ran 1:46.6 (world record 15 July 1939 in Milan) and he did it by running much quicker than anybody else at the time.
“(Juantorena) made the next biggest breakthrough by doing that off a 400. I did that in Oslo and Florence by covering the distance quicker than most people were prepared to do. So I think there is a pattern of 800 records where people are prepared to commit physically and mentally early on in a race. To get it down to the granular detail of whether its 49 and bits or 50 and bits is so dependent on individual physiology."
Juantorena: "Looking into the Montreal race (world record 1:43.50 - 16 July 1976) I was running the first lap in 50.58. It depends on many factors, how you feel, how you motivate yourself, how you have prepared. But one thing is important. When you are at 700 this part of the race, you say: 'Oh my God - where is the finish line!'" (More laughter).
Kipketer: "The only thing I can say is that 800m is not easy. I ran in a different way trying to run an even race, maybe 50-50. I went 49 and went 51 for the last one. But I was looking at my time and no matter how fast I ran the first one, I still had two seconds negative splits. If I go too fast I have three seconds, which is worse. So to make it really even you have to decide. If you are strong and you can go for the 47 400 (laughter) and you can still maintain it, good luck."
Rudisha: "I also think the same because before my record I was telling my coach if we want to get the world record I have to run something like 49 the first lap or even under 49. So that is what we started planning to get Wilson's record to run 48 or 49. The first lap you don't feel that it is hard but the second lap you feel like you are running but the last 200 is tough.”
David Martin for the IAAF
The quartet’s World Records -
1:43.5 1:43.50 Alberto Juantorena (CUB), 1976-07-16 Montreal, Canada
1:43.4 1:43.44 Alberto Juantorena (CUB), 1977-08-21 Sofia, Bulgaria
1:42.4 1:42.33 Sebastian Coe (GBR), 1979-07-05 Oslo, Norway
1:41.73 - Sebastian Coe (GBR), 1981-06-10 Florence, Italy
1:41.73 - Wilson Kipketer (DEN), 1997-07-07 Stockholm, Sweden
1:41.24 - Wilson Kipketer (DEN), 1997-08-13 Zürich, Switzerland
1:41.11 - Wilson Kipketer (DEN), 1997-08-24 Cologne, Germany
1:41.09* - David Rudisha (KEN), 2010-08-2 Berlin, Germany
1:41.01* - David Rudisha (KEN), 2010-08-29 Rieti, Italy