Matt Centrowitz ended a 108 year old drought in the men’s 1,500 meters for the U.S. on Saturday, August 20, 2016. Centrowitz did it by controlling the race from before the 200 meters on, and putting down one of the finest last laps in the history of Olympic final. It took only 50.25 seconds for Matt Centrowitz to cover the last 400 meters as nearly 60,000 fans screamed from the stands of Engenhao Stadio Olimpico!
Here is how we saw the race build and finish at a crescendo, with the young, talented and tactical Matt Centrowitz taking the gold, against one of the finest fields in the 1,500 meters in many an Olympic Games.
The 1,500 meters started out slow, and got slower. With so many athletes who should have known better, the race was so slow by 200 meters, that Matt Centrowitz was at the front, a position he would not reliquish until the very end, well, actually, past the finish! In that, Centrowitz did something no American had done since 1908, with the best finish being a silver in 1968 by the great Jim Ryun. Ryun, had, in fact, called to wish Matthew good luck before the race!
Centrowitz took the lead just after 200 meters, and stayed right there. Matthew hit 400 meters in 66.83, with Taoufik Maklhoufi, Algeria, 2012 London gold medalist, and 2016 800 meter silver medalist, and Ayanleh Souleiman, Djibouti, always dangerous, who has the 800m bronze from Moscow 2013 to prove it. Sitting in the very back was Asbel Kiprop of Kenya, the man everyone thought was going to win. Nick Willis, New Zealand, the 2008 Olympic silver medalist at 1,500 meters, and the 2016 World Indoor bronze medalist. Nick has lots of experience and brutal finishing speed. Nate Brannen, Canada, always dangerous. Of the latter two, their coach, Ron Warhurst told me a few days before, “If I don’t get them into the final, then I am not that good a coach.”
The point: Centrowitz was managing a fast moving train, and keeping that train very slow.
The 800 meters was hit in 2:16.59-yes, that is slow. The pace continued to be slow, and Centrowitz continued to control the pace. Those finely honed elbows were in place, tuned over all of the indoor races Centrowitz had run as a high schooler. That is one of the things about Matt Centrowtiz, Jr. that I have always liked: he seldom gets in bad positioning when the medals are on the line. Centro continued that modus operandi in this race. How close was it? Just before the 800 meters, Ronal Kwemoi, Kenya, who should have been a player, hit the track and would end up finishing last.
The problem was, the rest of the world was on Centrowitz’s back. Asbel Kiprop was moving up and, as the field came close to the bell, all the players were there: Makhloufi, Iguider, Kiprop, Bustos of Spain, Ben Blankenship of the U.S..
After the race, Centrowitz told USATF: “I didn’t know how this race was going to be. After about the first 800 and no one went around me, I said okay we’re getting now into latter stages where I can’t let anyone get around me at this point. Early on, if someone came around me, I’d be content with that. Souleiman kind of pulled up, kind of went around me but kind of left the inside. I’ve made that maneuver before at previous world championships and I saw that he left it open. I thought we’re going into the last lap right now, it’s now or never, I took my opening and went from there.”
As the field hit the bell lap, in 3:00.00 flat, one knew the pace had to quicken. Matt Centrowitz, began the long drive for home. His speed is deceptive. Centrowitz was churning up the track and controlling the race. No one could get by him on the back stretch. Ayanleh Souleiman made the toughest move with less than 200 meters to go, but there was no way Centrowitz would let him get by, it was running for medals now!
Off the final turn, Matt Centrowitz was churning down the track, full speed, and he was flying. Taoufik Makhloufi tried to get by, and he was stopped at second, as all the rest tried. Asbek Kiprop began to move, his long legs and tall frame moving fast, but he just did not have the gear he had used so many times, and finished sixth. Abdalaati Iguider, Morocco has serious finishing speed and his 50.58 last lap got him fifth.Ayanleh Souleiman ran 50.29 gave the Djibouti star fourth.
Best movers? Nick Willis stayed in perfect position the entire final straight, knowing he who moves last wins the big prize. Nick Willis used that finish built on the track at Michigan, under the watchful eye of Ron Warhurst, with precision and took the bronze, with a 50.24 last lap, just missing the silver. Nick Willis’s bronze medal put a large smile on the Kiwi’s face!
Taoufik Makhloui, the 2012 defending champion would be closest, but he could not get the to position, as that was reserved today for Matt Centrowitz. Makhloufi took silver, in 3:50.11. Yep, that was slow, the slowest since 1932 Olympics.
But, as John Walker, 1976 Olympic bronze noted, one preferred a field full of senior citizens. Finishing time did not matter, all that mattered was who won gold, silver and bronze.
And for the first time since 1908, a U.S. runner had the gold. Matt Centrowitz ran 50.25 for the last 400 meters, getting the jump on the field and putting so much lactate in their legs that most could not challenge those few feet of advantage.
At the finish, Matt Centrowitz noted to his father, “Are you kidding me?”. His father, Matt Centrowtiz, Sr., a fine coach, a fine runner in his own right (and former American record holder), was a bit more profane, ” Are you **** kidding me?”, using a a bit more colorful language in the discourse.
I am taken to two final comments. Back in May 2012, I was in the Amsterdam airport with Dathan Ritzenhein, after Dathan had run 27:51 at Hengelo. We were speaking about the young Centrowitz then. Dathan told me that Alberto Salazar, their coach, believed that Matthew was one of his most talented runners. A few weeks later, I wrote, on runblogrun: “Matthew Centrowitz had the talent, the speed, and yes, the arrogance, to win it all.”
I am sure glad that Matt Centrowitz won the 2016 Olympic gold medal, as it has not been often, in track & field prognostications, that I am right.