Emmanuel Korir and Ferguson Rotich Cheruiyot spare Kenyan blushes in an anticlimactic race on Wednesday evening in Tokyo
Kenya were not having the best of championships – a pair of thirds in the steeplechase and out of the medals in the men’s 10,000m but on Wednesday they went one-two in the 800m.
The winner Emmanuel Korir is 26 years old but USA can claim some of his success as the former NCAA champion had a great collegiate career.
His fastest two runs, though, have both come in Britain in 2018 – a 1:42.05 in London and a 1:42.79 – races he both won.
Possessing great speed – he was sixth in the Doha 400m after a 44.37 semi-final and has a 44.21 PB – he has not previously coped with 800m championships racing having failed to make the final in both the 2017 and 2019 world championships.
He didn’t start 2021 in winning form, finishing third in Portland in 1:45.74 and then a slightly concerning third in the Kenyan trials in 1:46.05, which at least gained him a spot in the team for the Games.
He did not win in Monaco either but a 1:43.04 second place to Nijel Amos at least confirmed he would be a serious challenger in Japan.
He eased through the heats with a win in 1:45.33 but had the semi-final jitters again finishing second and only making the final by five hundredths of a second. That semi-final run was preceded by a quite farcical 400m heat in the morning where he exhibited acting not seen since the likes of ITV’s Crossroads in the 1960s as he pretended to accidentally false start so he could focus on the 800m.
A summary of the men's 800m final:
— AW (@AthleticsWeekly) August 4, 2021
There was no false start in the 800m but it might have enlivened proceedings. France’s shock finalist Gabriel Tual was the early leader at 100m in 12.6 but at 200m Australia’s Peter Bol went ahead in a reasonable 24.9 but then slowed dramatically to run the second 200m in a ridiculously slow 28.9.
It meant at 400m the time was a modest 53.8 with Korir and world leader Nijel Amos (54.0) well placed. The Botswanan, who had finished second in the legendary 2012 Olympic final, had been fortunate to be advanced to the final having fallen in his semi-final.
European indoor champion and former 400m hurdler Patryk Dobek, who must have been rejoicing in his decision after the previous day’s run by Warholm, was well placed on 54.2 alongside Ferguson Rotich Cheruiyot, who had impressed in the heats running the fastest ever Olympic qualifier.
The pace picked up a little at 500m with Bol (67.1 after a 13.3 100m) ahead of Korir (67.3), Amos (67.4) and Dobek (67.5) and Cheruiyot (67.7). Bol picked it up further along the back straight – 12.8 for 79.7 – but that speed off such a slow pace had little chance of worrying anyone well placed, which Korir (79.8) and Dobek (80.0) still were with Cheruiyot wide in sixth (80.2).
Korir unleashed his 400m speed early and was just ahead at 700m in 1:32.3 (12.5 for that 100m) with Bol (1:32.4) being hotly pursued by Dobek (1:32.6), Amos (1:32.7) and Cheruiyot (1:32.9).
As so often in 800m races, the speed in the straight is not as quick as on the bend and Korir’s 12.8 last 100m gave him victory in 1:45.06 by just over a metre from his fellow Kenyan’s 1:45.23 who closed in a much faster 12.3 and will probably rue that he did not run his usual race.
Korir said: “The race wasn’t easy. I had to work extremely hard. This means a lot to me as I have been training twice a day and this is my best ever day in track and field. There was pressure as Kenyans back home have wanted us to win and we have won the event a lot.”
This is Kenya’s fourth successive Olympic title in this event and the sixth in the last nine Olympics.
Dobek, who has run 48.40 for the 400m hurdles, closed with a 12.8 for a clear bronze in 1:45.39.
He said: “This is a historic medal for Poland. I’m very excited and the bronze is a huge performance in a new event and a new future for me towards Paris 2024.”
A gallant Bol finished fourth in 1:45.92 just ahead of Spain’s Adrian Ben (1:45.96) with double world medallist Amel Tuka showing the speed he showed in the semi-finals to deny Elliot Giles making the final to take sixth in 1:45.98.
Amos faded to eighth in 1:46.41 but did at least beat US champion and Rio medallist Clayton Murphy, who never got involved and finished a deserved last in 1:46.53.
While the race was ultimately exciting in the last 150 metres it’s worth noting the finishing time was the same as Peter Snell ran in Tokyo in 1964 (1:45.1) and slower than 1968 (1:44.40).
The finishing pace was good – 51.1 for the last 400m for Korir and 25.3 for the last 200m – but it’s worth noting that 1980 winner Steve Ovett ran 1:45.40 with similar last 200m and 400m splits so it was hardly the earth-shattering advance you would expect 40 years on with super-spikes and a super fast track.
Kenya won’t mind, though.