As a spectator, fan, coach, or athlete, races don’t always go as planned, and when that happens, you do your best to accept the outcome and move on. But I have a vivid memory of watching the TV broadcast of the women’s 1500m final in the London 2012 Olympics and thinking, “that was so, so wrong!”
Following the news this week that the winner of that race, Turkey’s Asli Capir Alptekin, had been stripped of the gold medal after accepting an 8-year doping ban, I watched the race again, and strikes me still as one of the most depressing and ugly four minutes of running I’ve ever seen.
As a fan of the American team, I had high hopes for Shannon Rowbury and Morgan Uceny, who had medal chances. For Uceny, in particular, it would be a chance to make up for her untimely fall in the 2011 World Championships final, when she was ranked #1 in the world and a favorite for a medal. Rowbury had also been running well, finishing second to Uceny (and ahead of Jenny Simpson) at the Olympic Trials.
Watching the video, even before the race starts there’s the shadow of seeing the screen displaying the existing World and Olympic records, both suspicious marks set by Qu Yunxia and Paula Ivan, respectively. And then there are the introductions, which included Alptekin, who had served a two-year ban for anabolic steroid use as a junior in 2004, her countrywoman, Gamze Balut, who had seen remarkable (and suspicious) improvement that summer, and Tatyana Tomashova, who had served a two-year ban in 2008 for her part in a Russian conspiracy to avoid doping detection (providing someone else’s urine for a drug test). There were suspicions about others in the race, as well, but those names stood out for me at the time.
The introductions seemed to take a long time, and then the race finally got underway. At the gun, there was the usual sprint off the line, with everyone jockeying for position down the back straight, and then the field hit the first turn and the pace slowed to a crawl. At that point, Maryam Yusuf Jamal led the race, with the two Turkish runners following, Rowbury wedged on the rail, and Uceny somewhere out in lane 2. The rest of the field was jammed together, and three years later I can still remember thinking at that moment: “someone’s going to go down –please don’t let it be Uceny!”
Jogging two and three abreast now, the field hit the finish in 57 seconds and completed the first lap in an excruciating 75.12 seconds. At this point, Balut, who had passed Jamal on the inside picked up the pace, briefly stringing out the pack. Balut continued to lead, passing 800m in 2:23.97 (68.8), while all the others were still bunched together, just running faster.
Balut hit the finish for the bell lap in 3:12, while behind her nine runners began to accelerate. At this point, Jamal was still second, with Alptekin third. Uceny was in about fifth, on the very outside of the pack as everyone started to lean into the turn. Two seconds later there is a stumble by Lucia Klocova on the inside, which causes Ethiopia’s Abeba Aregawi to veer slightly to the outside, where her next stride catches the back leg of Uceny, who is moving in, and Uceny goes down. It’s a sickening moment, as Uceny slams the track in frustration.
The race goes on, of course, and it’s a furious last lap. Alptekin seizes the lead with about 300m to go, followed by Jamal and Aregawi, who has charged back after her stumble and contact with Uceny. Everyone is going so hard with 250m to go that it’s almost inevitable that most of them will run out of gas except, improbably, Alptekin and Balut. Alptekin never gives up the lead, and Balut comes back on the two African runners in the final straight to nab second. Jamal holds on for third, while Tomasheva catches a fading Aregawi for fourth. Rowbury finishes sixth, securing a footnote as the highest-placed U.S. finisher ever in a women’s Olympic 1500 final.
It was awful. I remember being so mad: mad that Uceny had fallen, mad that Alptekin and Balut had gone 1-2 when I was sure they were illegally aided, mad that Tomasheva was even competing… It was more than an anti-climax, it was four minutes (and ten seconds) of ugliness that I wanted to forget.
Now, three years later, I’m remembering it all again. I suppose I’m relieved that Alptekin has been found out and stripped of her ill-earned title. But at the same time, it feels like there’s a lot of unfinished business from the race. What of Balut, who hadn’t broken 4:18 prior to 2012, and hasn’t run a world-class time since? What of Tomasheva? Will she be one of the ones implicated by the latest revelations about improper blood values? Will all the guilty be punished, and will we even know who was guilty and who was innocent?
Almost immediately after the final, Great Britain’s Lisa Dobriskey, who finished tenth, said, “I don’t believe I’m competing on a level playing field.” That’s right. It wasn’t a fair race, and the ugliness of it is that there’s no action that can retroactively make it fair.