05 October, 2016

Facing the calvary: the combined-events' 800/1500 m

As I promised in the previous post I would like to discuss these special events that mark the end of the decathlon/heptathlon/pentathlon, namely 1500 m and 1000 m for men and 800 m for women. For combined event athletes these events are a true calvary (all the more so since they come at the end of two days of gruelling efforts) and their performances are rather below par. A notable exception to this is Nadine Debois' 2:01.84 s record in the heptathlon 800 m, a performance set in 1987. 


Nadine Debois winning the heptathlon 800 m at the European Cup of combined events in 1987

Just to be able to appreciate the quality of this record let me point out that with the current scoring tables this performance corresponds to 1121 points. For men to obtain the same score in the 1500 m they have to run below 3:39! Debois was also a 400 m specialist (she was member of the 4x400 m national team that finished 7th at the Rome, 1987, World's and the Seoul, 1988, Olympics) which explains her performance in the 800 m. N. Debois' record stands for 30 years now. The one who came closer to breaking it was Irina Belova, who at the very end of her career ran a 2:02.06 800 m at the Götzis, 2001, Hypo-meeting. However since Belova had been previously suspended for a doping offence (she lost her World Indoor pentathlon title on that occasion) I am somewhat sceptical about her performance. 
The only other athlete who came within one second of Debois' record is Ester Goosens of the Netherlands. She ran a 2:02.70 800 m in a 5873 points heptathlon in 1997. However Goosens was not a real heptathlete but rather an 400-800 m athlete (her national records over the 400 m both indoor and outdoor, 400 m hurdles and 800 m indoor still stand) who dabbed at combined events. By the way, Goosens has the indoor pentathlon 800 m record with 2:04.42.


Ester Goossens was a 400-800 m specialist

In the recent years the best performance in a heptathlon 800 m is that of Karolina Tyminska who ran an 2:05.21 in the Daegu, 2001, world championships.

For men things are not as good. The best 1500 m performance for a 7000+ points decathlon is due to Robert Baker and goes back to 1980. He ran 3:58.70 to complete a decathlon of 7583 points (scored with the current table). Closer to us we have Curtis Beach who ran a 3:59.13 1500 m in a 2011 decathlon. Beach is a 8000+ decathlete but his personal best of 8081 from 2015 was obtained with a 4:06.18 1500 m. This is most probably the best 1500 m time for a 8000 plus decathlon. (The only other decathlete coming close to this is Herbert Peter who ran a  4:08.42 in a wind-legal 8111 decathlon. He had the best 1500 m 7000+ performance with 4:00.51 in 1978, but then his record was broken by Baker). Beach (who is also an excellent 400 m hurdler with a 49.87 s personal best) has the best indoor 1000 m heptathlon performance with 2:23.63 from 2012, obtained in a 6138 heptathlon. Since Beach is still competing (he was 4th at the 2016 World's Indoors) it is not impossible to see him break Baker's record one day. His 800 m personal best of 1:47.75 (and his 1:47.99 season best) corresponds to a 3:42 s 1500 m. It suffices thus that he perform at a conservative 93 % in order to break Baker's record. 


Curtis Beach is an excellent 800 m runner

Of course, when we talk about best performances in any individual event of a decathlon/heptathlon we are talking about a real multi-event competition where the athlete participates at all events and at least starts in the 1500 m/800 m. (Otherwise it is very easy to establish best performances like the 83.96 m javelin (old-style) throw of S. Boros who took part in a decathlon but only threw the javelin). Moreover the performance in the combined event must be a serious one. F. Zarnowski, the great decathlon specialist places the threshold at 7000 points. I am not quite sure about the threshold for women but logically it should be around 5000-5500 points for heptathlon and 4000 points for pentathlon. Below this minimal score we cannot really talk about a combined event. Which reminds me of having read in the late 50s or early 60s of Silvano Meconi, the italian recordman in shot put, participating in a decathlon where he had an excellent performance in the shot put, around 17 m, but managed to score less than 3000 points overall. Bill Mallon the great historian of the Olympics has presented the progression of the world best in each decathlon event including an impressive amount of details.  Concerning the 1500 m we learn thus that there are performances better than the world best but which were obtained in a low-score decathlon. Luigi Beccali, the 1932 olympic champion of 1500 m, ran a 4:00.2 in a decathlon but his overall score was below 5000 points. To date the best performance in a decathlon 1500 m is due to Paul Cummings (ex half-marathon world record holder with 1:01:32) who ran a 3:48.2 in a below 5000 points decathlon.

So, indeed, the performances in the decathlon's 1500 m do lag behind those of women in the heptathlon's 800 m and one does not see how the situation could change. Decathletes usually settle for a 700 points performance in the 1500 m while women strive for an over 1000 points score in the 800 m.

As N. Debois was pointing out in her commentary included in to my previous post, the 800 m is easier than a 1500 m. The 800 m is an event at the limits of prolonged-speed and middle-distance while the 1500 m is really a middle-distance event. This explains why there are practically no decathlon-1500 m specialists.
Also the heptathletes participate at the 800 m  having contested fewer events and are thus less tired than the decathletes. The latter start at the 1500 m after 9 events and a short time after the pole vault event which is particularly tiresome. 

I am deeply indebted to Mme Debois who has responded so kindly to my query and I hope this article will help her reminisce her superhuman effort in Talence in 1987. (She scored 6227 points, missing out third place for just 10 points most probably due to her below-par 30.12 m at javelin throw and despite her world-record 800 m).

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