Olympic 800m champion and world-record holder would contemplate racing Usain Bolt over 400m for charity.
LONDON. “Athletes are just normal people,” says David Rudisha, the fastest man to have run 800m. His performance in London last summer when the softly spoken Kenyan stunned the world with a breathtaking surge around two laps of the Olympic Stadium, was anything but.
“Sometimes you get to the right place,” he says. “London was great, I love the city and the people were great, they love sport. Everything was perfect, that’s why I did so well.”
Rudisha’s humility is quite something, considering the scale of his achievement. Not only did he win Olympic gold and make the rest of the field look like they were running through treacle but he cut 0.1sec off his own world record and became the first 800m athlete to run under 1min 41.00sec.
Lord Coe described it as “the most extraordinary piece of running I have probably ever seen” while Steve Cram, usually so eloquent behind the microphone, simply said: “How do you put that into words?”
Rudisha was the only man to break an individual world record on the track at the Games and it was a performance that elevated him from world-record holder to world superstar.
Wherever he competes the 24-year-old is the main attraction, having to answer questions about whether he can break 1:40.00, or the possibility of a 400m showdown with Usain Bolt.
The response is at first a bashful smile, before a glint in the eye and a grin as wide as the Great Rift Valley. “Just for fun, maybe one time we can do it for charity,” he says.
Rudisha was denied an unbeaten 2012 by Ethiopia’s Mohammed Aman in August but this season he has outclassed opponents at the Diamond League meetings in Doha and New York, oozing confidence with every stride.
“I believe after winning in London I have released some pressure,” Rudisha says. “Lord Coe was a fantastic 800m runner, he broke the world the record but never won the Olympic title. I was at the same stage – I was the world-record holder and world champion but I didn’t have the Olympic title.
I remember people told me in 2010 after being awarded athlete of the year that now was the time to win the title and become a complete athlete.
“In London I was attempting around 1:41.00 without a pacemaker, although I knew that no one had ever done that. I had run 1:42.12 comfortably at altitude in Africa so I thought it might be possible. I tried to memorise how I had run at altitude and use the same tactics.
“If you see the way I ran, the last 200m I really pushed hard. That’s what I did in Kenya and that’s what really helped. I was not really going for the world record. People were really confident that I was going to do something special but my pressure was to win the Olympic title – that was the most important thing.
“People couldn’t believe that you could break the world record in the Olympics without a pacesetter. There was a lot of pressure. Also with my family being an Olympic family, I wanted to continue the legacy of my father in 1968. Everything was right that day, my shape was at the top – it was my day.”
His father, Daniel, won silver in the 4x400m at the Mexico Games in 1968, something that makes Rudisha beam with pride, even more than his phenomenal world-record performance.
Yet even his Irish trainer, Colm O’Connell, who is normally reflective in victory and defeat, felt it necessary to celebrate the win in Kenya.
“Brother Colm was watching from his TV at home,” Rudisha says. “I don’t know what his reaction was but I think he was emotional. He even left to meet friends and celebrate.”
O’Connell’s story is remarkable in itself, an Irish missionary who went to Kenya as a geography teacher in 1976 only to end up coaching some of the country’s finest athletes. Based at St Patrick’s high school in Iten, Rudisha says that since training with his mentor he has been “improving all the time”.
There is, though, huge competition in the country for aspiring athletes.”If you walk around at 10am, you will find thousands of people training, even more than that,” Rudisha says.
Doping in the east African country is a growing problem – this year Moses Kiptanui, one of the greatest runners in Kenya’s history, said certain athletes “want to get money by all means … by a genuine way or another way” – and, although an anti-doping centre has been set up in Eldoret, the rewards for a successful career, even if achieved illegally, are ample.
“Now that I have seen that some Kenyans have been caught doping, it’s a sad situation,” Rudisha says. “It’s unfortunate this is what we’ve been hearing.
We have so many talented athletes in Kenya and we have been performing well globally since the 1960s. Some people want to get fame easily without working hard. It’s not fair and it is a very sad situation.
“We encourage athletes to exercise fair play and work hard. It’s happening not just in athletics and it’s not a good thing.”
Rudisha will compete in a 1,000m in Ostrava later in June, although he was forced to withdraw from Saturday’s Diamond League meeting in Eugene, Oregon, because of a knee injury.
The next big test, though, will come in Moscow when he has the opportunity to defend his world title. “It’s been great after London. I’m very happy, everybody is still talking about that achievement and life is good,” he says.
“To get to the top is not easy but to maintain your level is even more difficult. The important thing now is to stay focused.”