Feature27 Aug 2015

Rudisha emerges from his dark place into the Beijing spotlight


David Rudisha wins the 800m at the IAAF World Championships, Beijing 2015 (© Getty Images)

There was a time when the great David Rudisha pondered if he would ever return to past glories.

It was only 18 months on from that stunning night in London when the Kenyan struck Olympic gold in a world record time when he admitted he had plunged into what he termed, “a dark place.”

In October 2013, Rudisha had undergone key-hole surgery on his knee to fix a problem which had caused him to end his season prematurely; and two months on he was enduring difficult times. 

 “The injury was a bad moment for me,” recalled Rudisha. “I had the operation, then the knee was very painful and it became swollen. I began to run but even warming up was a bit of a problem. I couldn’t run for five minutes, I was in so much pain. That was the lowest moment. Sometimes in your mind, you think, will I ever come back again for a big competition?”

The road back has not been easy. 

He has leaned heavily on his support team: his coach, Brother Colm O’Connell the famed Irish missionary, his athlete representative, James Templeton, and his family led by his wife, Elizabeth, whose due date for their second child was the day of the men’s 800m final.

Yet slowly the injury healed.

In early 2014, the Kenyan enjoyed “a good” period of rehabilitation in Germany but after returning to running in March last year, he had significantly lost some muscle in his leg and this, plus a lack of his old sharpness, impacted upon his form.

After a 12-month competitive break, he returned to action at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Eugene in the early summer of last year but placed an unfamiliar seventh in 1:44.87.

It is a measure of the Olympic champion’s class that he then bounced back with Diamond League victories in New York and Glasgow but this was not quite yet the dominant Rudisha of old.

silver in Scotland

He went on to place fifth in Monaco and then had to settle for a silver medal at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow behind a familiar adversary, London 2012 Olympic Games silver medallist Nijel Amos of Botswana. 

The season was far from perfect but, like all great champions, he offered an honest appraisal of this year.

“It was tough coming back and having those defeats, it is like you have forgotten how to run,” explained Rudisha, who first struck world championships gold in 2011.  “The 2013 and 2014 seasons were tough, those years were the down moments of my career. I had lost muscle in my leg so to win the Commonwealth silver medal was a big moment for me. Throughout, I believed in myself and I had the encouragement of others, which in both sport and life is very important.”

Rudisha returned to training and opened his year with a couple of outings in Australia – the homeland of Templeton – and was reasonably satisfied to win races in Sydney and Melbourne.

His opening race on the 2015 Diamond League circuit ended in victory in New York, although successive defeats to Amos in Lausanne and London raised further question marks as to the his form. Then, in the Kenyan trials final earlier this month, he suffered a shock defeat to Ferguson Cheruiyot, which lead to more concerns for his ability to secure a second world title.

However, Rudisha refused to panic.

“In my race in London I was able to hold (my form) until the final 30 metres, so I knew I was close,” he explained. “At the Kenyan trials, I was beaten but felt I was at 95 per cent. I saw my weaker points and started to work on them, so for the last month I worked on my speed. I realised once my speed returned, I was confident and I had nothing to worry about.”

With his old swagger, not to mention his speed back, he then opted to play a very different tactical role here in Beijing from his famous race in London.

Historically a destructive front-runner, he sought a fresh approach for his campaign in the Chinese capital.

Speed king

“I knew I could control the race with my sprint over the last 100 or 150 metres. I wanted it to be a tactical race, so I can use my sprint.”

So it was that Rudisha perfectly delivered on his plan in a final surprisingly containing neither Amos nor the 2013 defending champion Mohammed Aman, of Ethiopia, both of whom failed to advance beyond the semi-finals.

He controlled the race from the front and was happy to take the field through the first 400m in a relatively pedestrian 54.17.

The 26-year-old then slowly cranked up the pace with 300 metres remaining and just when he appeared vulnerable to an attack around the final bend, he delivered on his promise by unleashing a devastating strike for home to secure gold and become the first man in history to regain this title.

 The time of 1:45.84 mattered little. He was back and he had once again tamed the 800m.

“Championship racing is different,” he added. “It is always very difficult. The 800m is one of the most unforgiving races, if you make a small mistake you need two years to rectify it.”

A regret the tall Kenyan won’t have after for a while once more returning to his place at the 800m summit.

Steve Landells for the IAAF