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2008 Olympic Men's 1,500m Semifinals: No Storybook Ending For Lagat
by: LetsRun.com

In two of the last three Olympics, the story of the men's 1,500m has been one of delayed gratification for favored runners who had met with previous Olympic disappointment. Heavy favorites Noureddine Morceli and Hicham El Guerrouj had felt the cruelty the Olympics can often bring and had to wait four years and eight years, respectively, to finally claim the gold medals which had seemed their destiny. Bernard Lagat was the sentimental pick to follow suit in these Games and, as World Champion only a year ago, it seemed it was not only his fate but within his grasp to take the final step up after winning bronze and silver in Sydney and Athens. Alas, the reality of sports does not always follow the fairy tale script. Lagat could not summon the smooth-striding finishing dash of previous seasons and wound up an agonizing and non-qualifying 6th in his semifinal race. The prolific champion may have only the 5,000m remaining in his illustrious career as a chance for Olympic gold.

Heat #1

In Sunday's semis of the men's 1,500m, the format was for the top 5 from each heat to qualify automatically to the final, joined by 2 time qualifiers.

Heat 1 started at an honest pace as the first 300m was covered in 42.4. Things slowed down considerably from there as 800m was hit in 2:00.53. At that point, Bahrain's Belal Mansoor Ali led, with Spain's Juan Carlos Higuero on his side. Given the 2nd lap was run in 62.72, it shouldn't have come as a surprise that the field got antsy and tried to position themselves for what was bound to be a furious last lap. America's flag-bearer Lopez Lomong moved up to the middle of the pack from last at 800m.

But at this level, everyone can stay in the race until the bell. The pretenders get separated from the contenders over the final lap.

On that final lap, no one was better than the lanky Asbel Kiprop of Kenya. We had our eyes focused on the 19-year-old Kenyan throughout this race as watching him run is a thing of beauty. He makes the 1,500m look like an art performance as he covers the ground like a gazelle.

Kiprop ran this race like a seasoned pro, as often the most confident runners realize little happens in the first 1k. As a result, Kiprop was content to stay out of trouble and run in last for the first few laps. At the bell, Kiprop was in 7th but as they entered the final turn, it was clear he was going to win the heat as he was moving up quickly and making it look like they were standing still.

The Bahamian commentator summed up what viewers who hadn't been focused on Kiprop the whole race must have been thinking when he said with 170 meters to go, "Kiprop appears from nowhere."

A perfect summation of the stunning last lap for the Kenyan.

Morocco's Abdalaati Iquider and Spain's Higuero, who have both looked solid all summer, followed along with surprising Christian Obrist of Italy, who made his first global final, and Ali, a 2007 Worlds finalist. The two time qualifiers, Daham Bashir (Qatar) and Juan van Deventer (South Africa) would come from this heat by hundredths of a second.

Canada's Nate Brannen, the former Michigan Wolverine, who looked exceptional in the first round when he crushed Bernard Lagat, just didn't have it tonight over the final 400m and he finished 9th. Perhaps missing months of training while injured gave him dead legs. Brannen told the CBC, "It went horrible, I just didn't have it tonight, didn't have the legs," said Brannen. "I was aiming to make the final, but I learned here in the first round that I could outkick the best in the world."

1500 Metres - M Semi-Final
Qual. rule: first 5 of each heat (Q) plus the 2 fastest times (q) qualified.
Heat 1
17 August 2008 - 21:55
Position Athlete Country Mark .
1 Asbel Kipruto Kiprop KEN 3:37.04 Q .
2 Abdalaati Iguider MAR 3:37.21 Q .
3 Juan Carlos Higuero ESP 3:37.31 Q .
4 Christian Obrist ITA 3:37.47 Q .
5 Belal Mansoor Ali BRN 3:37.60 Q .
6 Juan van Deventer RSA 3:37.75 q .
7 Daham Najim Bashir QAT 3:37.77 q .
8 Carsten Schlangen GER 3:37.94 .
9 Nathan Brannen CAN 3:39.10 .
10 Mulugeta Wendimu ETH 3:40.16 .
11 Antar Zerguelaine ALG 3:40.64 .
12 Lopez Lomong USA 3:41.00 .
Intermediate Bib Athlete nat Mark
Belal Mansoor Ali BRN 57.81
Belal Mansoor Ali BRN 2:00.53
Abdalaati Iguider MAR 2:58.11

Heat #2

With the relatively slow winning time of the 1st heat (3:37.07), one might have logically figured that someone in heat two would take things out honestly as there were two time qualifiers to the final. Ah, but then again this is the 1,500m and it seems that at every level - high school, college or pro - every 1,500m runner always thinks they are fast and will leave it to their kick.

The opening 300m was decent (44.0), but then things slowed and after 400m was passed in 60.47, things got very bunched and people were shoving and putting their hands on each other to prevent a tumble. America's Leonel Manzano moved up to 2nd at this point as Spain's Arturo Casado led. The 800m was reached in a pedestrian 2:02.05 and it was time to wait for the furious last lap. Heading into the bell lap, double World Champion Bernard Lagat was lurking in the back third of the pack, by no means in a perfect position but certainly well positioned to kick and get into the top 5.

At the bell, the pack was still bunched but the pace was starting to wind up as Augustine Choge moved up to make his customary long drive. Down the backstretch, the always-dangerous Mehdi Baala (France) charged to the front to get out of trouble, apparently confident he would continue to a qualifying spot. Lagat seemed in position to pounce but was in 8th and not moving up. The 2005 double World Champion and last year's silver medallist Rashid Ramzi, who had been marking Lagat for much of the race, latched on to Baala when the Frenchman made his move.

Going into the final 200m, things got a bit physical as everyone battled for position. Lagat made a panicky move as he squeezed between two runners and moved into the 5th qualifying position as he and Great Britain's new hope Andy Baddeley moved up. However, former Michigan star Nick Willis, who was in 6th and lost some momentum in the contact that took place heading into the final turn, had aspirations of getting in the top 5 as well.

Only 6 combatants had a shot for the top 5 and Lagat seemed safe. Shockingly (but not if you watched Lagat's two most recent races and if you've watched Willis' career), Willis came back on Lagat. The tendency in the 1,500m is to sometimes kick too early and Willis, the man who for years has been criticized for seemingly running his own race somewhat oblivious to what was happening around him, would see his Achilles heel turn into a huge advantage. He'd saved something for the last straight and moved back into 5th to grab the final auto qualifying spot in 3:37.54.

Thus Lagat, the two-time Olympic medallist at 1,500m, was left to lunge at the line. Clearly he must have known he wasn't in the top 5. He smartly leaned at the line, probably out of the unlikely hope that he might still wind up 5th or might somehow squeak in on time. Sadly and shockingly, Lagat would end up missing the final time qualifier by a cruel 0.02 as he finished 6th in this heat in 3:37.79. In heat #1, 6th and 7th were 3:37.75 (van Deventer) and 3:37.77 (Bashir) to eke out the time qualifiers.

No excuses here. Lagat ran hard through the tape. He just didn't have it. Time to get ready for the 5k.

As the 3rd through 6th runners battled it out for the final three auto qualifiers, two runners were clear of the field and qualifying with ease. Ramzi, who ran the fastest non-final in Olympic 1,500m history in round one, was pulling away with ease, stamping himself as a co-favorite with Kiprop by decisively taking the heat (3:37.11 winning time) from Baala (3:37.47), who was comfortably in second. Ramzi walked the final two steps. Choge didn't look relaxed coming home but his qualification was never in doubt. He ended up 4th in 3:37.54, between Baddeley (3rd in 3:37.47) and Willis.

Lagat wasn't the only big-name casualty from heat #2. World Indoor Champion Deresse Mekonnen finished one spot behind Lagat and also didn't advance.

The other American in this heat, 2005 and 2008 NCAA 1,500m champ Leonel Manzano, was terribly off today. He was way off the pace with a lap to go and would come home last, well behind the field. 1995 NCAA champ and ageless wonder Kevin Sullivan of Canada was also eliminated as well. Like his compatriot Nate Brannen in the 1st heat, Sullivan finished 9th in what was likely his last Olympics. It's a sad shame that Sullivan's early brilliance came prior to the Internet's big-time popularity as many LetsRun.com readers likely don't realize that Sullivan was 5th in the 1995 Worlds while still a collegian at the University of Michigan. He also finished 5th in the 2000 Olympics. A hell of a career.

The post-race interview of Lagat on NBC was poignantly cruel. Bob Neumeier didn't know that Lagat hadn't qualified and neither did Lagat. Lagat was given an open-ended question of "give us your reaction to this race" and Lagat probably assumed given the fact that he wasn't being asked about not qualifying that he indeed had qualified.

Lagat said, "I just wanted to come in and make it in. I didn't make it in automatically but I'm safe, I'm sure I'm safe. Norhing to worry about - just go relax and wait for the finals."

Finding out a few minutes later that he didn't make it must have been extra painful.

Lagat's response to Neumeier's second question was encouraging for those American fans looking for hope for the 5k. Neumeier asked Lagat if he had any more life in his legs in the semis than in the first round when he felt flat.  Lagat replied, "Yes I did. I liked the feeling today. I wasn't as flat as last time. But man it was a tough race - there was a lot of pushing."

To read some more about Lagat not qualifying, please see this article where he gives some quotes after knowing he didn't qualify.

Heat 2

17 August 2008 - 22:04
Position Athlete Country Mark .
1 Rashid Ramzi BRN 3:37.11 Q .
2 Mehdi Baala FRA 3:37.47 Q .
3 Andrew Baddeley GBR 3:37.47 Q .
4 Augustine Kiprono Choge KEN 3:37.54 Q .
5 Nicholas Willis NZL 3:37.54 Q .
6 Bernard Lagat USA 3:37.79 .
7 Deresse Mekonnen ETH 3:37.85 .
8 Tarek Boukensa ALG 3:39.73 .
9 Kevin Sullivan CAN 3:40.30 .
10 Mohamed Moustaoui MAR 3:40.90 .
11 Arturo Casado ESP 3:41.57 .
12 Leonel Manzano USA 3:50.33 .

Intermediate Bib Athlete nat Mark
Arturo Casado ESP 1:00.47
Arturo Casado ESP 2:02.05
Augustine Kiprono Choge KEN 2:57.28

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