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Kenyan middle-distance runner David Rudisha has transformed the 800m from a tactical game of cat and mouse to a prolonged sprint, as he demonstrated to devastating effect at London 2012, where he shattered his own world record to claim gold. Four years later in Rio, he became the first runner in 50 years since Peter Snell to retain the Olympic title at the distance.
Born in Kilgoris in the Rift Valley and the sixth of seven siblings, David is the son of Daniel Rudisha, a member of the Kenya quartet that won Olympic silver in the 4x400m relay at Mexico City in 1968. “I realised I could run after finding out that my dad used to run, and it gave me the morale that if he did it, then maybe I could also do it,” said the 800m sensation of his father.
A pupil of St Patrick’s High School in the town of Iten, Rudisha was taken under the wing of an Irish missionary priest, Father Colm O’Connell. Having formerly coached Peter Rono, the 1,500m champion at Seoul 1998, and Wilson Kipketer, a triple 800m world champion, O’Connell was quick to spot Rudisha’s raw talent. By the time he won the 2006 World Junior Championships in Beijing, the Kenyan had already made a name for himself with some impressive performances on the international circuit, though injury would deny him the opportunity to cement that reputation at Beijing 2008. Then, at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, he failed to make the 800m final after being boxed in during the semi-finals. Determined to prevent history from repeating itself, he adopted a simple and devastating new tactic: hit the front from the start, maintain a high tempo and cross the finish line ahead of everyone else.
As well as being a powerful front runner, the fleet-footed Rudisha also boasts a searing sprint finish, as he showed in Berlin in August 2010, when he ran 1:41.09 to smash Kipketer’s world record. A week later, he shaved a further eight hundredths of that time in Rieti (ITA). Then, in August 2011, he was crowned world champion for the first time, in Daegu (KOR), before winning the IAAF Diamond League later that year.
After completing a leisurely lap of London’s Olympic Stadium while carrying the Kenyan flag at the Opening Ceremony in 2012, Rudisha returned a few days later to run the fastest 800m of all time, stopping the clock in 1:40.91 to win gold and become the first athlete in history to dip under the 1:41 barrier. At the age of 23, he had become the first runner in history to hold the world record and world and Olympic titles at the same time. Hailing his London triumph, LOCOG Chairman and future IAAF President Lord Sebastian Coe, himself a former world record holder at the distance, said: “David Rudisha showed supreme physical and mental confidence to run like that in an Olympic final. Rudisha’s run will go down in history as one of the greatest Olympic victories.”
Rudisha’s domination in the 800m was halted by a serious knee injury sustained in 2013, which forced him to miss the IAAF World Championships in Moscow that year. When the event moved to Beijing two years later the Kenyan returned to form, leading once again from the start and clinching his second world title with a typically electric burst of pace down the home straight.
There was to be more of the same at Rio 2016, where Rudisha, who cruised through his heat and semi-final, was gunning to become the first man to retain the Olympic 800m title in half a century. The final began with his young compatriot Alfred Kipketer surging into an early lead, with Rudisha sitting in his slipstream, just ahead of France’s Pierre-Ambroise Bosse. After completing the first lap in 49.23, Rudisha took the initiative halfway down the back straight and opened up a decisive lead to win in 1:42.15. Though unable to catch the quicksilver Kenyan, Algeria’s Taoufik Makhloufi and the USA’s Clayton Murphy both produced strong finishes to take silver and bronze respectively, while Rudisha basked in the glory of matching New Zealander Snell’s feat of winning back-to-back golds in the event, achieved at Rome 1960 and Tokyo 1964.
Very much a family man and a proud father of two young daughters, Rudisha is devoted to his training schedule. He also makes himself available for the pupils at St Patrick High School whenever he can, and is more than happy to be a role model for his young training partners. “They can see that there are no short cuts to success,” said Rudisha, who is aptly nicknamed “The Pride of Africa”. “You just have to work hard, do what’s expected of you and, if you have the talent, you’ll have a good career.”