The merciless 800m semisthe toptwo from each of the three heats moved on automatically to Saturday (23) evening’s final - claimed two pre-Olympic medal favourites, one with perhaps the most international racing experience, and the other with the least.
The first race pitted reigning Olympic champion Yuriy Borakovskiy against perennial speedster Wifred Bungei, the Kenyan team captain, and this year’s Cuban breakout talent, Yeimar Lopez. The Kenyan and Cuban ran at the front over the first lap, with Borzakovskiy joining at the bell, which sounded as Bungei crossed in a dangerously slow 54.32.
American champion Nick Symmonds joined the leaders midway through the backstretch, with the Cuban fading back a step. The pace quickened as the pack headed into the final turn, but with Bungei maintaining control and Borzakovskiy on his shoulder.
Bungei held on to win in 1:46.23 with Borzakovskiy poised to follow his Kenyan colleague and friend across the line. But Lopez took the opportunity to put his closing strength on display to the world. The tall 26-year-old moved smoothly and powerfully from fifth off the final bend, passing the Russian to finish second in 1:46.40, with the defending champion another 0.13 seconds behind.
After seeing the Cuban cross before him, the Russian closed his eyes, covered them with hands clasped in prayer, and waited.
But he didn’t have to wait too long.
In a much faster (51.02 at 400m) second heat, World champion Alfred Kirwa Yego moved to the front just before entering the final turn, running much more relaxed than in yesterday’s opening round. Reigning silver medallist Mbulaeni Mulaudzi was just behind on the outside, with Yusuf Saad Kamel on the inside.
The first casualty of the race was Mulaudzi, who lost contact with about 250 to go, while Yego went on to win in 1:44.73, the fastest time of the evening. Sudan’s Ismail Ahmed Ismail accelerated through the bend to finish second in 1:44.91, just ahead of Kamel (1:44.95), who also advanced. Further back in fourth, Nadjem Manseur clocked 1:45.54 to definitively knock Borzakovskiy out of the final.
Heat three featured World indoor champion and world leader Abubaker Kaki, and from the outset it was clear that the teenager was in trouble. Never finding his rhythm over the first lap and simply running of steam over the second, his first Olympics ended on a sour note as he eventually faded to last.
In the interim, Algerian Nabil Madi controlled the tempo, bringing the field through 400 in 52.24 and 600 in just under 1:20. Behind him, with the exception of Kaki, the pack was still tight. Madi held on to win in 1:46.63, with Osaka silver medallist Gary Reed, better positioned than he was in the first round from which he barely qualified, taking second in 1:45.85. He barely edged Kenyan Boaz Lalang, whose 1:45.87 fell about two-tenths of a second shy of moving him on to the final.
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF