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How Olympic finals were won and lost

Dobriskey in the 1500m final in Beijing
Lisa Dobriskey was criticised for her tactics but micro-timing shows she would have struggled to win a medal

Mark Butler
By Mark Butler
BBC Sport's athletics statistician takes a look at the numbers behind the big races

If you are a casual runner testing your fitness, try measuring out 100 metres and see how quickly you can cover that distance.

Then compare your result with the following figures: 15.4 seconds for men and 17.3 for women.

These figures were obtained from a revolutionary timing system, where all distance running athletes each wore a tiny transponder

For many fit people, these might not seem to be tough targets and of course are far from the current world records of 9.69 and 10.49.

But consider that these were the slowest 100m sections covered in the respective Olympic 1500m finals last summer.

Every athlete in both those races ran 14 further 100m stretches faster than those times, and without a break!

These figures were obtained from a revolutionary timing system, where all distance running athletes each wore a tiny transponder on the inside of their front bib number.

Each time the runner passed over the 100m, 200m, 300m or 400m point on the track, his or her time was registered.

Therefore in the men's 10,000m with 35 finishers, some 3,500 separate times were recorded.

It was all a bit too much to take in at the time, but now we have had a chance to take stock, can see a unique picture of how and when races were won or lost.

Among the highlights:

  • A fast back straight, rather than finishing burst, clinched victory in many races.
  • Britain's Lisa Dobriskey may not have made the tactical error many believed in finishing fourth in the 1500m.
  • Women's 10,000m champion Tirunesh Dibaba ran a section faster than Britain's Mo Farah in his heat of the men's 5,000m.

    In finals it is interesting to note that none of the new Olympic champions ended their race with their fastest 100m. The damage had been done before that point.

    Not surprisingly, the 800m races provided the fastest movers. Two of the 800m men clocked a time of 11.7 down the back straight on the first lap in their preliminary races, but both went on to be eliminated.

    800m W Bungei (Ken) 13.0 secs
    1500m R Ramzi (Brn) 13.3
    5,000m K Bekele (Eth) 14.2
    10,000m K Bekele (Eth) 13.7
    3,000m Steeplechase B Kipruto (Ken) 13.5

    Conversely, Canada's Gary Reed left it too late. Seventh at 700m, he finished the Beijing final with a blistering 12.3 but ended up a frustrating fourth.

    In the women's 800m, the figures confirm the trademark move of the new champion Pamela Jelimo: a big effort on the final back straight.

    The Kenyan clocked 14.2 for the section between 500m and 600m before slowing to 15.2 then 15.6. When Kelly Holmes won in Athens she finished faster than that, but from a slower initial pace.

    Rashid Ramzi ran a tactically perfect race to win the men's 1500m, with a scorching 12.6 on the crucial final bend.

    His taller rival, Kenya's Asbel Kiprop, clocked 12.8, which proved the difference, even though Kiprop was the faster in the finishing straight and closed to within 0.2 secs of the Bahraini.

    Of course the figures alone cannot tell the story of the race. Someone forced to run wide on a bend would be actually be running further than 100m between the two transponder points.


    In the women's 1500m it was widely felt that Lisa Dobriskey had lost a medal through poor tactics, but the timing analysis does not fully confirm this.

    800m P Jelimo (Ken) 15.6 secs
    1500m J Langat (Ken) 15.1
    5,000m T Dibaba (Eth) 15.4
    10,000m T Dibaba (Eth) 15.8
    3,000m Steeplechase G Samitova-Galkina (Rus) 16.7

    In finishing fourth she ran a faster last 100m (14.6) than all but one of the other finalists, but the one quicker was Ukrainian Natalya Tobias, who Lisa had been tracking all round the final lap and who took the bronze medal.

    Would they have been able to finish so fast if they had covered the courageous breaks made by winner Jebet Lagat (14.3 to 1100m) and silver medallist Irina Lishchynska (14.5 to 1200m) earlier in the race?

    We'll never know. We do know that it did not work for Bahrain's world champion Maryam Jamal, who finished with only 17.2 after leading at the bell.


    Kenenisa Bekele and Tirunesh Dibaba each won the 5000m and 10,000m double and the statistics show that they won with similar tactics at the finish.

    Ethiopians Bekele and Dibaba
    Ethiopians Bekele and Dibaba both won the 5,000m, 10,000m double in Beijing

    It is as if they take delivery of fresh legs in the closing stages of their races.

    In the men's 10,000m, Bekele simply changed gears 500m from home, moving down from 15.1 to 13.9 to 9600m and 14.0, 13.2, 12.5 for each successive 100m then 13.7 easing off.

    Bekele was even more impressive at the 5000m, with three consecutive 100m segments under 14 secs from the bell.

    In the brutally quick women's 10,000m final, "Dibaba the Dasher" was able to run the final back-straight 100m in an astonishing 14 secs.

    That meant she was moving faster in that section than any woman in any of the 1500m races in Beijing as well as Great Britain's Mo Farah during his heat of the men's 5,000m.

    She had gone from 12 to 16mph in the space of 200m, which might not impress Jeremy Clarkson but is a deadly change of pace for a woman during a long distance race.

    As with Jelimo, Ramzi and Bekele, her victory was forged before the home straight and she was able to slow somewhat without being threatened.


    Sadly the Beijing timing measurement did not extend to sprint events where the runners all keep to separate lanes, but it is hoped that this will be possible at future meetings.

    606: DEBATE

    We can therefore look forward to getting a record of the fastest of all individual 100m runs, that of the second half of the 200m.

    Also this technology can give us a more accurate picture of the seemingly pace-perfect 400m tactics of Christine Ohuruogu.

    Watch the Aviva International from Glasgow on Saturday, 31 January from 1400 GMT on BBC One and the BBC Sport website.

    see also
    Dobriskey learns Olympic lesson
    04 Sep 08 |  Athletics
    Langat takes 1500m gold for Kenya
    23 Aug 08 |  Athletics
    Ramzi storms to 1500m gold medal
    19 Aug 08 |  Athletics
    Bekele storms to Olympic double
    23 Aug 08 |  Athletics
    Dibaba storms to Olympic double
    22 Aug 08 |  Athletics
    Athletics on the BBC
    28 Oct 08 |  Athletics
    Contact TV team
    08 Apr 08 |  Athletics

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