Men’s 1500 Semis: Heartbreak for Robby Andrews and Elijah Manangoi, Asbel Kiprop Shows That He’s The Man To Beat and Centro Says He’s In the Shape of His Life

August 18, 2016

RIO DE JANEIRO – The men’s Olympic 1500 final is set as the two semifinals were run this evening. However, not all of the expected medal contenders will be in it.

The major casualty of the night came before the first starter’s gun was even fired. 2015 world championship silver medallist Elijah Manangoi of Kenya announced in a post on Facebook that he was having to pull out of the meet due to an injury he suffered in the first round (the post showed a picture of him on crutches). Kenyan media later described the injury as a third-degreee hamstring injury.”

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Once the racing started, only one of the top nine runners based on seasonal best times was eliminated – two-time world indoor silver medallist Jakub Holuša, who was just 9th in the first heat. In the end, counting the first round, Saturday’s final will feature 7 of the 9 fastest men of 2016. The other five qualifiers can hardly be considered surprises as they include 2008 Olympic medallist Nick Willis and 2011 and 2013 medallist Matthew Centrowitz. The top 3 seeds of 2008 Olympic champ Asbel Kiprop of Kenya, 2012 Olympic champ Taoufik Makhloufi of Algeria and 2016 world #2 Ronald Kwemoi all were particularly impressive as the two Kenyans won their heats with Makhloufi right behind Kiprop.

The ‘surprises’ in the final would have to be American Ben Blankenship (3:35.02 pb), Ugandan national record holder Ronald Musagala (3:35.03 pb) and Canadian veteran Nate Brannen (3:34.22), who broke into tears when he learned he had made his first Olympic final as the final time qualifier at the age of 33.

Team USA almost had a perfect night as it initially placed all three of its runners in the Olympic final for the first time since 1968, but US runner-up Robby Andrews ended up being DQ’d for taking two steps inside the rail on the homestretch as he was boxed in and had no other place to go if he was going to move up to an automatic qualifying spot. USATF filed an appeal on Andrews’ behalf, but that appeal was denied.

Spain’s David Bustos, who tripped into the infield on the final turn (he did not fall but ran seven strides on the infield), was advanced as a 13th finalist. Bustos was running in front of Musagala at the time but it was hard to determine what contact (if any) caused the fall.

Here are how the top 12 seeds from 2016 have fared in the 1st 2 rounds.

1 Asbel KIPROP KEN 03:29.33 Won heat #1
2 Ronald KWEMOI KEN 03:30.49 Won heat #2 in fastest time of the day
3 Elijah Motonei MANANGOI KEN 03:31.19 DNS due to injury
4 Taoufik MAKHLOUFI ALG 03:31.35 Finished right behind Kiprop in heat #1
5 Abdalaati IGUIDER MAR 03:31.54 Only 6th in heat #1, but snuck in as 1 of 2 time qualifiers.
6 Ayanleh SOULEIMAN DJI 03:31.68 2nd in heat #2 in 2nd best time of night
7 Ryan GREGSON AUS 03:32.13 Auto qualifier – 4th in heat #2
8 Jakub HOLUŠA CZE 03:33.36  9th in heat #1
9 Charlie GRICE GBR 03:33.60 Placed in semis after DQ, auto qualifier to final out of heat #1
10 Filip INGEBRIGTSEN NOR 03:33.72 DQ’d in 1st round after a blatant foul
11 Dawit WOLDE ETH 03:33.98 10th in heat #1
12 Matthew CENTROWITZ USA 03:34.09 Auto qualifier – 3rd in heat #2

Heat #1: Kiprop Floats From Behind Yet Again

Results of Heat 1
1 Asbel KIPROP KEN 3:39.73 Q
2 Taoufik MAKHLOUFI ALG 3:39.88 Q
3 Nicholas WILLIS NZL 3:39.96 Q
5 Charlie GRICE GBR 3:40.05 Q
6 Abdalaati IGUIDER MAR 3:40.11 q
7 Nathan BRANNEN CAN 3:40.20 q
8 Benson Kiplagat SEUREI BRN 03:40.53
9 Jakub HOLUŠA CZE 03:40.83
10 Dawit WOLDE ETH 03:41.42
11 Henrik INGEBRIGTSEN NOR 03:42.51
12 Pieter-Jan HANNES BEL 03:43.71
13 Brahim KAAZOUZI MAR 03:48.66

The first heat started very slow (63.11 and 2:03.86) with American Ben Blankenship and Moroccan Brahim Kaazouzi up front and the world’s best 1500 runner, Asbel Kiprop, trailing the pack. At the bell (2:46 high), Kiprop was still next to last but it didn’t matter as he made his trademark burst to the front on the backstretch and was up front with 200 to go.

The real drama in the final 100 was that Iguider was unable to move up into a top-5 auto qualifying space even though he started the final 100 in 6th and that Willis somehow was able to find daylight — just as he had in the prelims — to move up to 3rd from a badly boxed 8th at the start of the homestretch.  

Talk about a Houdini act. Halfway home, Willis was still in 8th running in lane two with a wall of people in front of him. He found a small opening and went from 8th to third in the final five seconds (40 meters) of the race, ultimately finishing in lane 4.

Kiprop won the heat by closing fast. 26 flat for the final 200, 38.4 for the final 300 and 52.1 for the final 400.

Heat #2: Andrews Goes Home After A DQ

Results of Heat 2
1 Ronald KWEMOI KEN 3:39.42 Q
2 Ayanleh SOULEIMAN DJI 3:39.46 Q
3 Matthew CENTROWITZ USA 3:39.61 Q
4 Ryan GREGSON AUS 3:40.02 Q
5 Ronald MUSAGALA UGA 3:40.37 Q
6 Mekonnen GEBREMEDHIN ETH 03:40.69
7 Homiyu TESFAYE GER 03:40.76
9 Fouad ELKAAM MAR 03:40.93
10 Chris O’HARE GBR 03:44.27
11 David BUSTOS ESP 3:56.54 q

With the modest times from heat #1, two time qualifying spots were ripe for the taking and it looked like they’d come from this heat early on (they would not) as the Ugandan record holder Ronald Musagala, who has a modest pb of 3:35.03, took it out in 59.67 but the pace slowed over the next 400 (2:03.59). Centrowitz was up front right behind Musagala throughout. As the runners came into the bell (2:47.0), Souleiman led followed by Centrowitz and Kwemoi, but given the slow pace, like the first heat, this was going to come down to the final 150. As they rounded the final turn, those three men started to separate themselves from everyone else and would cruise to qualification. The only question was, ‘Who would get 4th and 5th and would 6th and 7th get in on time?’

Ryan Gregson started the final 100 in 8th but he moved up nicely to auto qualify after crossing the finish line fifth. American Robby Andrews was full of run but he was in lane one in seventh with little room to maneuver as Canada’s Charles Philibert-Thiboutot was just ahead of him on his outside with Brit Chris O’Hare just ahead and outside Philibert-Thiboutot. Directly in front of Andrews in lane one was Ethiopia’s Mekonnen Gebremedhin.

Had Andrews been really patient, he could have moved outside and found daylight just like Willis did in the first heat (as O’Hare soon started to go way back and Andrews and Gebremedhin started to pull away from the Canadian) but the 25-year-old Andrews didn’t have the amazing patience that the 33-year-old Nick Willis did in heat #1 when Willis waited until the final 40 meters. After briefly making contact with the Canadian at the start of the final straight, Andrews decided there was no room to go outside so 80 meters from the finish he decided he’d go for a dangerous inside pass. However, Gebremedhin never left the middle of lane one so Andrews only passed him by taking two steps inside the rail. His eventual 4th place finish didn’t last long as he’d get the DQ. The fianl qualifier in this heat ended up being Uganda’s Ronald Musagala, who had faded all the way to 10th at 1400 meters but rallied to cross the line 6th (which was upgraded to 5th at Andrews DQ).

Watching the event live, we felt for sure that Andrews would get DQ’d (MB: Unfortunately, Robby Andrews is going to get DQd from men’s 1500 semi (Update, he’s been DQ’d)but Andrews’ former training partner, American mile record holder Alan Webb didn’t agree, as shown by the tweets below (MB: Alan Webb’s got Robby’s back: “He does not ‘pass’ off the track per the ruling. He is forced off after the pass.”).

Quick Take: If the field lets Kiprop run like he did in the prelims and semis, just hand him the gold medal now

Kiprop has been content to run at the back of the pack in both rounds in Rio so far, employing the same strategy that carried him to World Championship gold in 2015. For most runners, that tactic is risky in an Olympic semifinal, but when you have the closing speed of Asbel Kiprop, it doesn’t matter.

“He surges like no one else I’ve ever seen before,” said Charlie Grice, who was in Kiprop’s heat tonight. From 1200 to 1300 meters tonight, Kiprop split 12.4, moving from 11th to 2nd.

This strategy has backfired on Kiprop a couple of times in the past however. Want a blueprint on how to beat him? Rewatch the 2009 World Championship final. Kiprop is at the very back at the bell when the leaders start moving HARD. Eventual champ Yusuf Saad Kamel closed in 51.6 for the final 400. As great as Kiprop is, even he can’t run that fast over the final lap if he’s coming from the back and drifting out wide on the turns to pass people.

Last year, Makhloufi moved hard with 300 to go, but Kiprop was able to answer it quickly, moving out on the backstretch to put him in position for the final 200.

Defeating Kiprop is a monumental task, but if he is toward the back with a lap to go, a hard move with 400 to go may be the best way to beat him — get to the front of the pack, use the lead he spots you and force him to run extra distance on the outside of both turns on the last lap or risk getting gapped further. Obviously it’s tough to execute such a strategy in the Olympic final, but if gold is the goal, you have to take risks. Perhaps Nick Willis, who employed this exact strategy (big move with 400 to go) at World Indoors, will be the one to do it. Maybe that doesn’t work. Maybe Kiprop is in decent position at the bell. But for someone like Willis or Matthew Centrowitz, may be tired of finishing behind Kiprop at these meets, it’s something to consider.

Quick Take: Ben Blankenship ran like a savvy vet over the last lap

Blankenship ran at or near the front for much of this one — “I’m a strong guy so leading, I’ve never really feared it,” he said. This is Blankenship’s first Worlds/Olympics but he didn’t lose his cool when guys started going around him at the bell. Instead, he waited until the backstretch and, perhaps sensing Kiprop coming up behind him, made a hard move on the inside to move back to the lead. Though he was eventually passed halfway down the homestretch, he was positioned well and had enough left in the tank to hold on for an auto spot.

A big part of the 1500 at this level is positioning. Robby Andrews had way more left over the final 100 in his heat than Blankenship did in his, but Blankenship made it through and Andrews did not because Blankenship was better positioned. Blankenship has no goal in mind for the final other than to “have fun” but if he’s in a good spot with 200 to go, there’s no telling what could happen.

Quick Take: Matthew Centrowitz has shown everything you could want from him in 2016 and through two rounds in Rio

Kiprop has to be the favorite, but Centrowitz said he’s feeling great.

“Workouts indicated that I’m in better shape than I’ve ever been,” Centrowitz said.

His race results have been fantastic as well; it’s impossible to find a bad race (unless you’re willing to count the Portland Twilight meet, which he ran as a workout, and his 1:47 800 at the TrackTown Summer Series, which wound up being part of an epic workout as well). Centro did lose that 1k battle to Clayton Murphy in Houston, but that result doesn’t look too bad after Murphy ran 1:42 to take 800 bronze in Rio.

Centrowitz has qualified through both two rounds with ease and is ready to unleash his full potential in Saturday’s final. Whether that is enough to defeat Kiprop remains to be seen, but we can’t wait to find out.

Quick Take: A heartbroken Chris O’Hare was sorry to let down those close to him

O’Hare said he felt great even with 200 to go but his body just “shut down” when he went to tap into his last gear in the home straight; he was at a loss to explain why.

“It’s really disappointing….I put so much work in, my family’s put so much work in, my team’s put so much work in. I’m just gutted for them. All the support’s been amazing. It’s hard to come here like this and disappoint so brutally.”

It was the second straight year O’Hare went home in the semis (he was .08 from advancing last year in Beijing) and both were heartbreaking in different ways. He’ll have the chance to make amends with a World Championship on British soil next summer but this one will take a while to get over.

Quick Take: Ryan Gregson is ready for the final

When the gun went off in heat #2, Ryan Gregson figured the time qualifiers would come from that heat as heat 1 was not super fast. However, heat 2 went slow, and Ryan knew there was no room for mistake. “I knew I had to make no bad moves in the last lap and I didn’t,” he said. Ryan’s path to the final has been a very winding one. He ran an incredible 3:31.06 for 1500m as a 20-year-old in 2010. He has battled a lot of injuries since. In 2011 and 2012 he went out in the semifinals of the Worlds and Olympics. He didn’t even make Worlds in 2013 and went out in the first round last year.

Since having a navicular fracture in November 2014, he’s healthy and showing the form that made him one of the brightest talents in the event in 2010.  “I’ve had a perfect preparation for the first time in my life and this is what I can do when I’m going healthy,” he said.

What that means for the final, we’ll find out. There isn’t a lot of room for ever however unless your name is Asbel Kiprop. Gregon said today of the final lap, “When you are running that fast and make a bad move, your race is over.”

Quick Take: 15 Years after his first worlds, Nate Brannen is an Olympic finalist and it Ccaused him to break down in tears

Nate Brannen broke down in tears in the mixed zone after finding out he made his first Olympic final. It was the most touching moment in the mixed zone we’ve seen all week. Nate walked through the mixed zone while the second 1500 heat was going on. Then at the very end, he finally stopped and watched the end of the heat 2 on TV.

When Nate found out he made the final, he leaned on the rail, resting his hands on it with his head down sobbing, the emotion taking over him.

Through sobs he said, “Falling in 2012 (in the Olympic semifinal), and coming back four years later and finally doing it.” Then he had to pause before continuing, “This is just a once in a lifetime opportunity. This is my last Olympics and to finally make the final is amazing.”

Part of the reason Nate was so emotional after making the final was he almost didn’t make it despite being super fit. In 2012, Nate was super fit, fell and didn’t advance. Here it was bad positioning that almost cost him. “I felt great the whole way. I knew I had another gear but I had to sit and wait,” said Nate. He was boxed and ran as close up to the runners in front of him, knowing he wasn’t in the top 5, but hoping it would be fast enough to advance him.

It was just barely fast enough. Now he gets the moment he’s been dreaming of since he was a high school phenom, becoming the seventh North American to go sub-4:00 as a high schooler.

“The ultimate goal was to make the Olympic final and we’ll see what can happen on Saturday. Anything is possible,” he said.

Before departing, he appreciated the moment one more time.

“Saturday’s going to be awesome. I’m an Olympic finalist. The best feeling ever,” he said.

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