Paralympian Visually Impaired Runners Ran Faster Than Olympian Runners in the 1,500: How is that Possible?

Abdullatif Baka of Algeria
Imagine wearing a pair of your friend’s eyeglasses, you know, the ones that look as thick as the bottom of a coca cola bottle. When you put them on, you can make out shapes and sizes, but you quickly remove them because your new view of the world is just too big a shock to handle.

Now imagine wearing those glasses and racing around a track in one of the most important events in your life.

Paralympians are amazing. And in the 1500 meter track finals at the 2016 Rio Paralympics, an amazing fact blew up the internet. Four runners whose visual acuity allows them to see the world in fuzzy shapes and colors, completed the race in 3 minutes and 49.59 seconds or faster. Yes, that is a faster time than the gold medal time in the 1500 meter track finals of the 2016 Rio Olympics.

In other words, the fourth placed finisher, Paralympian Fouad Baka of Algeria, had a faster time than Olympian Matthew Centrowitz of the US, who completed his run in 3 minutes and 50 seconds. Fouad’s brother, Abdellatif Baka took gold in the 1500 meter Paralympic finals in 3 minutes and 48.29 seconds.

This is close to how it looks for these Paralympians.
So the world asked, how could the very best, fully sighted Olympians in the 1500 meters get out-timed by runners who have the equivalent of Vaseline smeared over their eyes? This is where the comments section of this Huffington Post article proved interesting and insightful.

Apparently, world-class runners in the 1500 can easily run faster times. In fact, if you look at the heats and semifinals, the winners finished in times of 3 minutes 38 or 39 seconds. Centrowitz finished 5th in his first heat with a time of 3:39:31 seconds, significantly faster than his gold-medal winning performance.

Additionally, according to those who have experience in the 1500 race, we very rarely see a world-class runner run full-blast throughout a competition, particularly in the finals. The 1500 is considered a highly tactical race, where the objective is not to run the fastest time, but to be first at the finish.

OK, that sounds fairly common sensical. But there appears to be a strong perception that running in the trail of one’s rivals, or drafting, reduces the air resistance significantly enough to make a difference, either physically or psychologically for a runner. Thus, tactically, the best runners avoid being the front runner for most of the race, which would slow down the pace relative to the heats. And when they see their opportunity, they sprint to the finish and hope they have more gas in the tank than the others.

Perhaps another way to think about it…. Imagine the Paralympians and Olympians competing in the same race. The Paralympians would set a very fast pace, and the Olympians would draft behind the front runners, who are likely running at full capacity. The Olympians, who can easily keep up, would have far more in the tank to kick into a higher gear, and likely leave the Paralympians behind.

Is that actually the case? Would anyone be willing to test that theory?

Who cares. Let’s go back to the original thought. These Paralympians are amazing!