Team GB’s middle distance legend Seb Coe was watching as the men’s 1500 metre finalists set off, a race that would last just over three and a half minutes. First over the line was the Algerian runner Taoufik Makhloufi in 3:34.08. It was a comfortable victory, but for a short time his place in the final was under threat.
Mr Makhloufi had already qualified for Tuesday’s 1500m final when he took part in an 800m heat on Monday morning. But he stepped off the track just part way through the race and was disqualified from all events by the International Association of Athletics Federations. They deemed he had “not provided a bona fide effort”.
That’s a big deal at the Olympics, as eight badminton players know to their cost. Rules are rules, and Olympians must try to win.
At the time, just before his heat, even the commentators wondered how hard he’d push. Success in the heat would have taken him into the 800m semi-final, just a short time before his victorious 1500 final. The incentive to do well in that heat must have been very low.
The disqualification lasted just a few hours. Later on Monday, a LOCOG doctor confirmed an Algerian claim that Mr Makhloufi was suffering a knee injury. The IAAF reviewed its decision and “revoked” the disqualification.
So Taoufik Makhloufi competed in the 1500m final, with a dodgy knee, and won gold.
It was controversial. But in fairness to him, such a knee complaint – if documented – could well have been real. I know from experience that an existing knee injury doesn’t necessarily reveal itself over the course of a short run. But when put under stress twice in an evening, perhaps Makhloufi’s medal could have been threatened.
In my previous blog, I wondered whether the IOC should consider how contests are structured “to remove the incentive for athletes to give anything less than 100%.” Now I wonder about the wisdom of having a middle distance semi-final (800m) and a middle distance final (1500m) on the same evening. Both events are likely to attract the same competitors. Why not make it easier for them to compete effectively in both?