The women’s 800 metres: how to run; how not to coach

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It’s hard not to feel warmth for Lynsey Sharp, the sole UK woman running the 800 metres at the Olympics. By the time of the final selection decision, she was the fourth-fastest athlete eligible for selection. Under IAAF rules, a county could select up to three athletes who have run the fastest (“A”) qualifying times, or, just one athlete, if she had run a slower (“B”) qualifying time. Sharp’s personal best of 2.00.52 was within the B time for her distance (2.01.30), but not the A time (1.59.90).

The circumstances under which Sharp was preferred over three faster British women (Jenny Meadows, Marilyn Okoro and Jemma Simpson) were as follows: the fastest of the three runners, Jenny Meadows (silver medalist at the 2011 European championships), has been injured for much of the past year with an achilles injury which had shown signs of improvement. She managed to persuade the organisers of her child’s school sports day(!) to keep the track open for her, and ran a solo race in 2.00.8 (within fractions of a second of Sharp’s lifetime best). Meadows’ achilles then flared up and she was injured for the UKA selection race, as was Simpson, with a broken rib.

Okoro (who has since broken the UK 600 metres record) set off like an express train at the UK selection race, but froze in the second lap, running laps of 57 and 67 seconds and and finished in seventh, two seconds behind Sharp.

Sharp (pictured) won the UK selection race, and followed that victory up with a silver in the recent European championships in Helsinki. In no time at all she has gone from being the fourth or fifth-fastest middle distance runner in Britain to being the UK’s sole women’s 800m Olympian. Jason Henderson the editor of Athletics Weekly described her selection as “brave”, and, again, I congratulate her for seizing her opportunity. But that’s not all I see in the story.

UK Athletics head coach Charles van Comenee (a man so well loved that he has an alternate Twitter existence as “Charles van Comedy”), a former decathlete who never made it to international standard, but career coach, publicly blamed the other runners for their own failure to achieve selection. Using the more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone of managers everywhere when blaming their workers, he said, “not one of the athletes took control of their own destiny … they made it difficult by not doing what they were supposed to do.”

You can hardly blame a runner who gets injured. As for Okoro, who Comenee very clearly blames for mis-pacing her 800 metres race, this just strikes me as the sort of stupidity that people who’ve never run will use in talking about those who do. Of course runners periodically mis-pace their races; this can happen for all sorts of reasons, not least because you can wake up of a morning feeling healthy (the adrenaline in your body giving you falsely positive  signals) only to work out mid-race that you are not as fresh as you thought.

If you would seek an example of a well-known athlete ruining their own 800 metre race by setting off too fast, look no further than later multiple world record holder Seb Coe, who ruined his first championship 800 metres, by doing just this at the 1978 European championships (and costing his teammate Steve Ovett of gold when Ovett tried to follow him). Far from being publicly humiliated by the coaches for that failure, Coe was retained in the UK team, and went on to win gold two years later at the Moscow Olympics. Coe who was seen even then as the Golden Boy of British athletics had, of course, the polite, almost deferential demeanour of a public schoolboy while Okoro is made of different stuff.

Van Comenee telephoned Okoro directly to tick her off for failing to qualify for the Olympics; so incensed was she by his insensitivity that she told him she was quitting the sport. I, can’t help but admire her for having the guts to tell him what he should do with himself.

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