Tuesday afternoon, day eleven of the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, gave me an opportunity to look at world-class 800m running. It was the final of the women’s competition and from a British perspective there was huge interest. Three women making the final brought back memories of the 1980-84 Olympics when British men ruled middle distance running with Seb Coe, Steve Ovett, Steve Cram and Peter Elliott at the top of their game.
Racing two laps of the track, beginning in lanes with a standing start, runners break at the end of the first bend so that by the 200m mark they’re running together. I’d estimate the time for the first 200m was 27.7 seconds, the next 200 was a relatively slow 30.12s to give a first lap of 57.82s. The second lap was 57.39s (29.33s + 28.06s) for a winning time of 1:55.21
The race was won by USA’s 19-year-old Athing Mu and she is something of a sensation, as is silver medallist Keely Hodgkinson who is the same age. There’s a possibility they could be pushing each other to faster times for the next decade. There was almost a bronze medal for Britain’s Jemma Reekie but she was beaten on the line by Raevyn Rogers; and Britain’s third runner Alexandra Bell finished 7th out of eight.
This was one of the faster 800m finals but they’re usually won in the 1:55-57 range. From what I’ve learned about running the 800 the first lap is typically faster with the second about two seconds slower; but today was a negative split. The slower second 200m was the culprit and would have been part of Mu’s gameplan as she has run 49.57sec for the 400m. She would have been confident that if she could be leading at the bell, she’d be able to outpace the rest of the field over the second lap. Consequently she took the lead as the pack formed on the back straight of the first lap and then imperceptibly slowed the pace. She never relinquished first place and went on to win by two-thirds of a second which is huge at this level.
There is nothing slow about these women. The pace of the winning time is 3:52/mile (2:24/km) with the average per 200m being 28.8 secs. If they could do a parkrun at this pace, they’d be done in twelve minutes. But remember, as I wrote in my article on True Speed, top speed is a lot higher.
As it happened the women’s 800m final was followed twenty-five minutes later by the women’s 200m final and gives us a good chance to compare. Having already won the 100m title with the 2nd fastest time in history, Elaine Thompson-Herah was now going for a “double double”. She didn’t disappoint as she went on to run the 2nd fastest 200m time in history at 21.53s – that’s six seconds quicker than the fastest 800m split.
By comparison, the PBs of the three British women for 200m aren’t close. Alexandra Bell ran 25.74s in 2016, Keely Hodgkinson ran 26.5s in 2018 and Jemma Reekie a wind-assisted 27.3s in 2015. These times are not poor by the standards of the rest of us but, as you can see, they’re a long way off being close to competitive over a sprint distance. There’s a genetic element to what event you’re best suited to, but also note how the longer the distance you run, the more you trade off speed for endurance. Mu’s two laps of fifty-seven seconds were significantly slower than her 400m ability.