If I’d been asked in mid-May to write a preview of the women’s 800-meter run at the London Olympics and to select the likely winner, the task would have seemed easy. Pamela Jelimo of Kenya, who at age 18 had been a Beijing Olympic gold medalist, recorded a best time of 1:54.01, and won the Golden League jackpot of $1 million for victories in six designated races, had seemed to recover her superlative competitive form after relatively bleak years sine 2008.
Jelimo won the 800 at the 2012 World Indoor Championships in March. She opened her outdoor season with a 1:56.76 triumph in Doha, Qatar. But then, out of Ethiopia, came Fantu Magiso, who was so like the Jelimo of ‘08. A coltish teenager, Magiso defeated Jelimo in Rome at the end of May. And then she went on to set a meet record of 1:57.48 at the adidas Grand Prix. For June, in New York, that’s a quick time.
Jelimo bounced back in early July in Belgium to run the year’s fastest 800 time, a 1:56.76 in Belgium on July 8. Magiso wasn’t there, and the race was pretty much a time trial. And Jelimo understood she would have to do even better at the Olympic Games. “In London I have to be competitive at a 1:55 level and that is what I will working on in the next weeks,” she affirmed.
We’ll begin to see the fruits of that labor as 800-meter rounds begin in London on Wednesday. The final, rather than a runaway as Jelimo enjoyed in 2008, could be an excruciatingly memorable match-up between Jelimo and Magiso.
But this is a far stronger women’s 800 field than four years ago, and there are many more contenders. And never forget that the 800 is perhaps track’s most unpredictable race in any case, with a range of tactics ranging from kamikaze front runners to those who go out conservatively and come storming from behind in the final 300, and every kind of strategy in-between. Moreso than in any other track event, the order in which the runners are arrayed across the track at the top of the homestretch gives only the slightest hint as to what the order of finish will be.
The three most recent 800-meter world champions will be in London. In 2007, it was Janeth Jepkosgei, a young Kenyan who seemed destined to rule the event for a long spell until the rise of Jelimo, who knocked her back to the silver medal position at the 2008 Olympic. The 200 world champ was South Africa’s Caster Semenya, and unknown on the global stage until just a few weeks before the championships in Berlin.
Suddenly, Semenya was beating world class fields by enormous margins. She did so in Berlin, looking back in the final and appearing to hold back, wishing not to win by even more and thus raise further suspicions. Semenya, a little-known runner with a decidedly deep voice who was photographed striking muscleman poses, became embroiled in a controversy regarding her gender. And to be honest, it’s been very difficult to find out too much about her. The media pressure forced her to retreat from the spotlight, and persistent rumors – never confirmed by her of her country’s athletic federation or the media or anyone – stated that she’d been receiving hormone treatments to become “more feminine.” Whatever the truth, Semenya hasn’t been arcing as well as in 2009, but there are those who think she’s been “sandbagging,” not racing as well as can. If that’s true, could she be faster in London than she’s been since Berlin?
The world champion in 2011 was Mariya Savinova of Russia; she’s one of those who finishes furiously from behind. The Russian women continue to be figures of suspicion. They don’t race often outside of their own country, and the impressive season bests by Savinova and her countrywomen Elena Arzhakova and Ekaterina Poistogova were all run in Cheboksary in early July. How well will they do in the rounds in London? Well, Savinova, for one, is a proven competitor and a medal threat.
And what about the Americans? Alysia Montano, the runner with the flower in her hair, is far ahead of her countrywomen in the 800. In the United States, even at the Olympic Trials, she’s used to running the first 400 at breakneck speed and hanging on. A couple of followers may be catching up at the end, but the Americans never get very close. If she employs such tactics in the London 800 final, the top international runners won’t let her get away. Montano has a 1:57.37 to her credit this year, and she was a bronze medalist at the 2010 World Indoor Championships and just missed a medal with a fourth place at the outdoor Worlds in 2011. If she’s sharp and prepared and has the race of a lifetime, it could be the moment of a lifetime. Alysia Montano could be bringing something glittery and shiny back to California.
The other two Americans, Geena Gall and Alice Schmidt, are most likely just below medal caliber at this point, though the final might have room for one of them. Gall is young and should be in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Jelimo is young and Magiso is young, too, and so are Semenya and Montano. It may be tougher to pick a winner in this London Olympic 800 than it is to be certain that whoever wins will still be back and in her prime in Rio in 2016.
We have to pick medalists? Okay, I’ll say Magiso for gold, Jelimo for silver, and America’s Montano for bronze. But there could be a Russian on the medals stand. And Jelimo could triumph again. Like I said, making prognostications for this 800 looked a lot easier in mid-May than it does today.