Culture

The Greatest Olympic Races That Might Have Been

Imagine Bill Rodgers, Mary Decker-Slaney, Wes Santee as Olympic champions; Kipchoge's double, Coe's treble, Nurmi's perfect ten.

What if there were no virus? For ten days, from July 30 to August 9, we would be dazzled by brilliant Olympic races. Instead, we stare glumly into a black hole in time. Even if the Tokyo Games do go ahead in 2021, there is no way the results could be the same. what would have happened in Japan this summer will exist only in dreams. 

But this isn’t the only time Olympic opportunities have been lost, denied, or stolen. Historian Roger Robinson imagines ten great Olympic races that might have been, from 2020 back to 1932. What is your nomination for the greatest Olympic race that didn’t happen?

Kipchoge’s Fantasy Farewell

2020 men’s marathon

Kenya's Eliud Kipchoge (white jersey) celebrates after busting the mythical two-hour barrier for the marathon on October 12 2019 in Vienna
Kipchoge celebrates after busting the mythical two-hour barrier for the marathon on October 12 2019 in Vienna. Photo: Herbert Neubauer/APA/AFP via Getty Images

Unusual for a mere human, Eliud Kipchoge always delivers on his promises. He promised to break the world record, and did, in 2018, 2:01:39. He promised to break the impossible two hours, and did, in 2019 (not record valid). And he promised often to defend his Olympic title in Tokyo – or Sapporo, where the marathons were to be held.

Now 35, Kipchoge promised, before the world shut down, that 2020 would see the showdown against Kenenisa Bekele in London in April (could it have been the first sub-2 in a legit race?), then a fantasy farewell by repeating as Olympic champion. Galen Rupp, third in 2016, would have been among his top challengers. With eleven marathon wins, unbeaten since 2013, Kipchoge has proven himself against all opposition, in all conditions, to be the master of winning tough marathons, not a mere paced record-breaker. What if he had faced a tough race in Sapporo? I wouldn’t have bet against him. Would you? 

Tuliamuk, Seidel and Kipyego On the Upward Curve

2020 women’s marathon

Tuliamuk, Seidel and Kipyego in the women’s race during the 2020 U.S. Olympic marathon team trials. Photo: Andy Kiss/Getty Images

The Olympic marathon never (Kipchoge apart) goes to the three with the fastest PRs. Look deeper. Look, say, at the three American women, none high on the world rankings, but all three with potential to podium, or close, if only they had a race to run this week. 

With its all-star field and no pacemakers, the Olympic race uniquely demands the ability to work with others when appropriate, patience, resilience, and a volatile mix of cool control and passionate commitment. Those are the exact skills that earned selection for Aliphine Tuliamuk, Molly Seidel, and Sally Kipyego on the cruel hills of Atlanta in February. “I was shocked how smoothly it all went,” Seidel told PodiumRunner, after entering history as the only American ever to qualify with her first marathon. Her second would have been intriguing, to say the least. 

Tuliamuk has similarly only just reached the marathon. After a strong career at Wichita State, and keeping busy collecting nine US championship titles from 5K to 25K since she gained citizenship in 2016, Tuliamuk moved up to an impressive 2:26:50 marathon debut, third at Rotterdam in 2019. She and Seidel showed consummate craft as they worked together on the crucial break in the Trial. 

And remember Kipyego has been on the Olympic podium before. A US citizen since 2017, she won 10,000m world championship and Olympic silver medals for Kenya in 2011 and 2012. It is too much to imagine an American woman — or several — on the marathon podium, the first since Deena Kastor’s bronze in 2004?

Bill Rodgers, Olympic Champion

1980 marathon  

Bill Rodgers winning the 1980 Boston Marathon
Rodgers crosses finish line at the 1980 Boston Marathon, which he won. Photo: Getty Images

The American-led boycott stripped the Moscow Games of many of the best, including America’s own vintage generation of marathoners. Bill Rodgers, who won nearly every Boston, New York, and much else from 1976 to 1980, did not even run the US Olympic Trial. What if there had been no boycott? What if Rodgers ran in Moscow, on his winning 1980 Boston form? It was hot, but no hotter than that year’s Boston. The Olympic winning time of 2:11:03 was well within his range. Rodgers went sub-2:11 in three of his Boston wins, and once at New York. 

That time was also within the range of the three actual American qualifiers, Tony Sandoval, Benji Durden, and Kyle Heffer, who all beat 2:11 in the Trial. My top picks for the podium in a perfect might-have-been Moscow field are Rodgers, Sandoval — who had twice run 2:10:20, and broke open the Trials with late miles in 4:44 and 4:48 — and Dick Quax (New Zealand). With the speed of a 5000m world record breaker (1977), Quax ran his marathon debut in 1979 in 2:11:13. In 1980, he won at Eugene in 2:10:47, one month after the 2:11:03 Olympic race that his government made him miss.

Tábori Threatens World-Record Elliott

1960 1500m

Tabori (left) after getting third in the Men’s 1500m at the International Invitation. Photo: G/PA Images via Getty Images

Four weeks  before the 1956 Olympics, Russian forces repressed a freedom movement in Hungary. László Tábori, world record-breaker at 1500m in 1955, and the third man in history to break four minutes for the mile, suffered what we now recognize as post-traumatic stress disorder. Instead of winning two Olympic medals, he slumped to fourth in the 1500m and sixth in the 5000m. “Mentally you were not there. What the hell am I doing this for?” he said. 

After the Melbourne Games, Tábori and his coach Miháli Iglói defected, risking ill-treatment of their families at home for unknown prospects in America. With no English, and little support in the still amateur sport, Tábori managed to keep running. He paced Jim Beatty to American records at 1500m and 5000m, and in 1960, he won eleven straight major races in Europe. But he was a man without a nation. A campaign to admit him to the 1960 Olympic Games as an individual was unsuccessful. No one could say now that Tábori would have beaten Herb Elliott, who broke the world record in the 1500m, or Murray Halberg, who masterminded the 5000m. But he would have been a factor, and surely deserved the chance. Tábori died in Los Angeles in 2018, a revered coach who left a significant legacy in American running.

Plaatjes on the Podium

1988 men’s marathon

Mark Plaatjes on track raising arms as world champion in 1993 marathon.
Plaatjes of the USA crosses the line to win the Marathon event during the World Championships in 1993. Photo: Gray Mortimore / Allsport / Getty Images

“For the first time since 1972, there is no boycott, so the best runners in the world are all here,” enthused my TV co-commentator as the Seoul Olympic marathon got under way. “Well, except for the three South Africans, all black or Cape Colored, who are excluded by the international ban on South Africa because of apartheid, and all three would be good enough for medals today,” I responded. 

They were Zithulele Sinqe (2:08:04), Willie Mtolo (2:08:15), and Mark Plaatjes (2:08:58). Neither the gold nor silver medalist in Seoul, Gelindo Bordin and Douglas Wakiihuri, had ever run that fast. The South Africans could win big races, too, once they had opportunity. Mtolo won New York in 1992, and Plaatjes became world champion in 1993, three weeks after gaining American citizenship. He is now a respected physical therapist in Boulder, Colorado. He never ran in the Olympics.   

Mary Decker-Slaney and Zola Budd Fly to Gold

1984 women’s 5000m and 10,000m

1984 Olympics Budd and Decker
1984 Olympics, Women’s 3000M Finals: Zola Budd and Mary Decker Photo: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

What if the 5000m and 10,000m for women had been added to the Olympic program at the same time as the marathon? It was overdue. By 1984, with the American road circuit pulsating with talent, enough great women runners had emerged to give us two enthralling high-level races. What a bonus, in place of that overcrowded 3000m that resulted in the Decker-Slaney traffic disaster. 

If the two new events had replaced the 3000m, here’s a guess at how they might have ended:

5000m: 1. Mary Decker-Slaney (USA). She held world records for mile, 5000m, and 10,000m around this time, and was double champion (1500/3000) at the 1983 World Championships. The 5000m was the perfect meeting point for her maturing talents. 2. Wendy Smith-Sly (GBR). 3. Lynne Williams (Canada). 

10,000m: 1. Zola Budd (GBR). With her light, long, barefoot stride, the longer distances were always Budd’s greatest strength, had they been available. She broke the world record for 5000m twice, won the world cross-country twice, and in her fifties has run well in the 56-mile Comrades Marathon. 2. Anne Audain (New Zealand). Audain ruled the American roads in the early 1980s, after a highly competitive track and cross-country career. Less suited to the marathon, she would have thrived on a long track race. 3. Aurora Cunha (Portugal).

Nurmi’s Perfect Ten Remakes the Marathon

1932 marathon

Paavo Nurmi Winning 5,000 Meter Race
1924 in Paris, France – Nurmi of Finland winning the 5,000-meter race. Photo: Getty Images

Paavo Nurmi was ready for the perfect ten. With nine gold and three silver medals from three Olympics, the Flying Finn had prepared with typical focus for his culminating marathon debut, at age 35. He broke the world record for one hour and 20K, and ran 40K/25 miles in equivalent to the world marathon record in the Finnish trial — on dirt roads, wearing spikes! 

But Nurmi’s steely demeanor through a decade of dominance had made enemies as well as admirers. The Swedish-controlled IAAF Council ruled that he had accepted payments in excess of expenses. No evidence was cited, and he was never declared “professional.” Despite a petition signed by every non-Finnish marathon competitor, the decision was confirmed on a 13/12 vote. Juan Carlos Zabala (Argentina) won the marathon in 2:31:36. The world record stood at 2:29:02. What if Nurmi had run? An informed estimate based on his track times is 2:20:00–2:24:00. The marathon would have leapt forward by twenty years.

Santee’s Olympic Consolation Prize

1956 1500m

Wes Santee winning race at finish line.
Santee wins the 1,500-meter run at the National Championships. Photo: Getty Images

The old federations liked athletes to be submissive, and wielded the rigid rules of amateurism to control or punish them. Wes Santee was not a self-seeking man. He could well have been the first to break the four-minute mile had his loyalty to Kansas University not caused him to over-race on match days. 

The 1956 Olympics should have been his chance to make up for missing the sub-4 goal. He had three of the six fastest miles ever run, and was world indoor record holder. Roger Bannister was retired, Lásló Tábori was distracted, and John Landy lacked a sprint. Santee had set a 3:42.8 world record for 1500m on the way to a mile. Ron Delaney won the Olympic title in 3:41.2. 

What a race that could have been! But before the Games, the AAU chose to ban Santee for life for excess expenses, acting on a leak by an affronted promoter (who was also an AAU official). Santee refused to testify, “because we’d have lost half the Olympic team.” 

Coe’s Triple Triumph

1500m 1988

Coe wins the 1980 Olympic 1,500 meters gold medal. Photo: UPI mt / Joe Marquette via Getty Images

Seb Coe, Olympic 1500m champion in 1980 and 1984, still blazingly capable of winning, especially high-profile events, was left off the 1988 British team because he had a cold at the selection trials. The expert selectors still picked him, but were overruled by a general council of regional representatives who got sidetracked by the size of his house and his advanced age (31), and voted 13-12 to leave him home. 

It’s a no-brainer that Coe could have won the 800m or 1500m. The latter turned out to be a made-for-Coe tactically ho-hum affair when a lot of star runners waited to blast their finishing jet, but couldn’t find the button. None could pass Kenya’s inexperienced Peter Rono, 21, who took his chance but never won another major race. 

As TV commentator, I was fretting for Coe to magically appear and change the dynamic as he could so supremely do, as he did in 1980 and 1984, and make history as the only three-time winner in an Olympic distance running event. I’m still fretting. So is Coe. In his book Running My Life (2012), he writes “my failure to be selected marks the lowest point of my career on the track, and ranks among the lowest of my life.”

Des Delights in the Deluge

2012 women’s marathon

(L-R) Desiree Linden, Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher pose with American flags after qualifying in the U.S. Marathon Olympic Trials on January 14, 2012 in Houston, Texas. Photo: Bob Levey/Getty Images

Bans, boycotts, global bugs — there are so many ways of becoming an Olympic might-have-been. The most common is the frailty of the human body, that all runners push to such extremes. As examples, I could have chosen Abebe Bikila (denied his third marathon gold, 1968, by a broken left fibula, the most frail of leg bones), Bill Rodgers (foot injury, 1976), Paula Radcliffe (inflamed stomach, 2004); or the many whose chances have crashed by mere gravity (Jim Ryun, tripped and fell in heats, 1972). But I’ll end by being shamelessly partisan.  

At a journalists’ gathering at the 2012 Olympic marathon in London, there was a sweepstake, and to my delight I drew my favorite marathoner, Des Linden (USA). I’d seen her big-race potential when she chased Kara Goucher in the 2009 World Championship marathon, an unknown placing a surprise tenth (fifth if you exclude the probable dopers). What if Linden had been race-fit in London 2012? In heavy rain, with a dithery uneven pace, the race was made for her unflappable persistence to go to the podium or close. But a femur fracture sidelined her mid-race. I kept my sweepstake ticket with her name on it until she won Boston in 2018.