Four Paralympians ran 1,500m faster than the gold medalist at Rio Olympics
“Wow” pretty much sums it up.
Four 1,500-meter runners in the T13 class at the Paralympics (a category for the visually impaired) all ran faster in their final than the time that won American Matthew Centrowitz the gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Rio last month. The men weren't competing in wheelchairs or on artificial blades – the T13 race is exactly the same as the Olympic race, except for the fact that the runners are visually impaired. (The T11, T12 and T13 categories are for runners with that disability. The T11 race is for the most visually impaired, the T13 race is for those with the least.)
Centrowitz went a 3:50.00 in his surprise win, the first gold for an American in the event in 108 years. Here were the finals times for the Paralympians:
Gold – Abdellatif Baka, Algeria, 3:48.29
Silver – Tamiru Demisse, Ethiopia, 3:48.59
Bronze – Henry Kirwa, Kenya, 3:49.59
4th place – Fouad Baka, Algeria, 3:49.84
Baka's winning time was a T13 world record.
So what's the deal? Are the visually impaired runners at an Olympic level?
To take absolutely nothing away from the accomplishment of the medalists and all the competitors in the Paralympic race, not quite. Comparing times in the 1,500 is like scanning marathon times from different courses (ones that have more hills, lots of downhills, are run in sweltering heat, etc.) and using those as a barometer to decide who's fastest. There are too many variables.
The long-distance races at the Olympics are won with tactics just as much as talent – given that the top competitors are all the most talented runners in the world. Without a rabbit used in professional racers (a runner paid to set the pace early who drops out after a certain point), a race and its pace are at the whims of the pack. If nobody takes out the lead early, as in Centrowitz's race, the group can be content to stay together until kicking it into gear in the final 500 meters. That's what happened in the Olympic final, a slow race until everyone put it into gear far later in the race than usual.
To put it into perspective, Centrowitz's winning time was 11 seconds slower than the time he ran in the first round in Rio. It was 24 seconds off a world record. And that 3:50 flat wouldn't have won gold at any Olympics since 1932 and wouldn't have medaled at all in the last 16 Summer Games. The fourth-place finisher at the 1936 Berlin Games ran the exact same time as Centrowitz did 80 years later.
The T13 race had a quick pace from early in the race. But the winning times, as an example, wouldn't have even earned a “B” qualifying cut for the U.S. track team. Still; no matter the circumstance, those runners will always be able to say they ran faster in the Paralympics final than anyone did in the Olympic final. It's a grand achievement.