Before I take a look at the hurdles events for 2012, I want to go back to the middle distances for a moment. Because as I was looking at this year’s women’s 1500, visions of one of the most gutsy performances in Olympic history were running through my mind.
I’m actually a big fan of the mile/1500 meters, I grew up during the era of Jim Ryun, Kip Keino, Ben Jipcho, John Walker, and Filbert Bayi – milers that ran fast and competed strongly. Having cut my teeth on competitors like these, I’m often disappointed by the slow, tactical affairs that milers often produce – especially in championship settings.
Back in 1988 when I sat down to watch the women’s 1500 meter final, my eyes like those of most Americans were fixed on Mary Slaney – hoping that Mary would set the pace and make a race of it. After all, Mary was one of the fastest 1500 meter runners ever at 3:57.12 (#9) with only the strong Soviet contingent truly “better”. So my assumption was that Mary would go to the front and try to control the pace, as that was arguably her best chance to win.
At the gun however, it wasn’t Mary blasting to the front, but Romanian Paula Ivan. Ivan was good, but not even the top Romanian as she often played second or third fiddle to teammates Doina Melente and Maricica Puica – silver and bronze respectively at the previous Games in Los Angeles. Neither were in this final however, and the “stud” to keep an eye on was Russian Tatyana Samolenko (3:58.56) a great kicker but with a PR slightly slower than Slaney, perhaps possible to outrun early – and that’s what Ivan was going to attempt to do. Paula had signaled that she too should be watched however with a 3:56.22 win in Zurich prior to the Games. Still there was the aura of the Soviets, and the speed of Slaney to be wary of.
Before they toed the line for the 1500, Ivan had already suffered defeat at the hands of Samolenko earlier in the Games in the 3000 meters taking silver to the Russians gold. This time around she clearly planned to put a bit of distance between them – not feet, but meters, lots of meters. So off Paula flew, taking the race out at WR pace (at the time 3:52.47) and Samolenko and the rest of the field let her do so as the race looked much like last year’s US Nationals 1500 final where Christin Wurth Thomas took the pace out on the field.
Lap one – WR pace. Lap two – WR pace, with nary a competitor within sight. Suddenly as they headed down the backstretch with some 600 meters to go it became apparent that Ivan wasn’t out to just set a fast pace – she was out to WIN and possibly set a WR! So, as Ivan went by the line for the bell lap the dual questions were: can they catch her, and can she break the WR!
The pack, now some 100 meters behind her, went into chase mode, but Ivan kept churning on. There was no faltering. She didn’t waver. Like Ryun, Bayi, and Walker at their best she kept going. She didn’t quite have the finishing kicks of her pursuers, but neither did she relinquish the bulk of her lead. They closed the gap a bit, but Ivan finished well clear in 3:53.96 – at the time the #2 performance ever! The field behind her was in full sprint mode, fighting for the remaining medals, and as Ivan began to catch her breath they crossed the line like a group of quarter milers; Laimia Baikauskaite (Rus) 4:00.24; Tatyana Samolenko, (RUS) 4:00.30; Christina Cahaill (GBR) 4:00.64; Lynn Williams (CAN) 4:00.86; Andrea Lange-Hahmann ((GDR) 4:00.96. One of the greatest/closest mass finishes in history, yet some 50 meters behind the gold medalist!
Rarely have I seen such heart in a championship setting. We’re almost guaranteed that if it’s a championship, and the distance is greater than 800 meters, it’s going to be a wait and kick affair. For me I didn’t see this kind of heart again in a distance event until the 2003 World Champs 10,000 meters where Kenenisa Bekele (26:49.57) took the crown from Haile Gebrselassie (26:50.77). Not in a wait and kick affair, but in a wire to wire race where they put it out on the line and the best man won! While no one dared challenge Ivan on this day, she took the pace out herself, went wire to wire and dared the world to challenge her. One of those moments where you would win or loss spectacularly – and she won in grand fashion!
Which is why this is one of my greatest memories of the Games – because it personifies everything that the Games should be about. Giving your best. Laying it all out there. Your best performance on the day that it maters most. And the idea that anything is possible. That was Paula Ivan. Almost a quarter century later STILL the #7 performer and performance of all time – under the bright lights of the Olympic Games.