Before there was David Rudisha, there was Wilson Kipketer.
On August 13, 1997 – seventeen years ago today — Kipketer lined up for the 800m at the Zurich Weltklasse meet fully intending to break the world record of 1:41.73 that Seb Coe had set in 1981 and Kipketer himself had equaled several weeks earlier. He faced a stellar field that included the 1996 Olympic gold and silver medalists (Norway’s Vebjorn Rodal and South Africa’s Hezekiel Sepeng), and eight of the men who would be ranked in the top ten in the world by the end of that year. Kipketer blew them all away.
Following rabbit Joseph Tengele, Kipketer tore through the first 200m in just over 23 seconds, opening huge gaps in the field as all the other runners tried to adjust to the insane tempo. Looking for a 49.5 at 400m, instead Kipketer went through in 48.10 as Tengele pulled off to the outside. Heading down the backstretch, Cuba’s Norberto Tellez tried to keep pace, but everyone else was hanging on for dear life. Kipketer split 600m in 1:14.0, and the only question was whether such a suicidal pace would cause him to tie up in the final 100.
Incredibly, he maintained his form, crossing the line in 1:41.24, a new world record by nearly half a second. Tellez, who had tried to match his pace through 600m, was shattered by the time he had rounded the final turn and stepped off the inside of the track, his legs completely dead. Among those who followed Kipketer across the line, Kenya’s Patrick Ndururi hung on the best, finishing 2nd in 1:42.62. Rich Kenah of the U.S. finished 3rd in a lifetime best of 1:43.38. In all, seven men ran sub 1:44 that night.
Kipketer would go on to lower his world record again that summer, and his time of 1:41.11 would last 13 years before Rudisha broke it by two-hundredths of a second in the summer of 2010. Rudisha has since lowered the WR to 1:40.91, but no other human being has come within a half second of Kipketer’s best time.
Although 1997 was his peak, Kipketer was good for a very long time. He was ranked number #1 in the world six separate times, including 1996 when his citizenship status kept him out of the Olympic Games. He broke 1:44 every year but one from 1994 to 2004. He ran sub 1:42 four times (second only to Rudisha), and sub 1:43.00 an incredible 21 times in his career (second to none). He still holds the world indoor record, a mind-blowing 1:42.67. No other runner has broken 1:44 indoors.
A two-time world champion, Kipketer was unlucky with the Olympics. He missed the Atlanta Games in 1996 when he was clearly the best two-lap runner in the world, and “only” managed Silver in Sydney (some would say that he was never the same dominant runner after contracting Malaria in 1998).
It’s hard to argue with the statement that Rudisha is best of all-time, and Rudisha’s powerful stride is a wonder to behold. But for my money, Kipketer in 1997 remains the most perfect 800m runner in history, the embodiment of seemingly effortless speed.
On the anniversary of that remarkable 1997 race in Zurich, here’s a link to video of the race for your viewing pleasure.