Match (Races) Made in Heaven: Sprinters Bailey & Johnson, Distance Runners Gebrselaisse & Morceli, Go One on One
Well, this will be something of a first for the sport of track and field: a day of one on one match races, with millions of dollars in prize money at stake. Taking a cue from golf and tennis which have staged big money exhibitions for years, all the glitz and hoopla will be centered in Toronto, Canada on Saturday June 1, where Olympic champions Donovan Bailey (100 meters) and Michael Johnson (200 meters) split the difference and square off at previously unheard of distance of 150 meters.
Posted Sunday, 25 May, 1997
Well, this will be something of a first for the sport of track and field: a day of one on one match races, with millions of dollars in prize money at stake. Taking a cue from golf and tennis which have staged big money exhibitions for years, all the glitz and hoopla will be centered in Toronto, Canada on Saturday June 1, where Olympic champions Donovan Bailey (100 meters) and Michael Johnson (200 meters) split the difference and square off at previously unheard of distance of 150 meters. This will certainly be a grudge match if nothing else, as both parties have been mouthing off as to just who is the world's fastest runner. Regardless of the outcome, it is certain that one of these runners will be talking trash after the race, while the other pulls out a litany of excuses, the first of which will be that he has never run 150 meters in a race before. We already know that, which is only one of many reasons why this "race" is so absurd. It is essentially an exercise is promotion and money-making for television, the athletes, their sponsors, and of course their agents. Don't feel too sorry for the loser. Both runners are guaranteed $500,000, with the winner raking another mill. That's about 100 grand a second, but who's counting?
Neither sprinter likes to lose, so we can at least be reasonably sure neither will tank the race and give up if things are not going his way. Bailey has the speed obviously. The question is whether he will be fit enough to hold it for another 50 meters. The question for Johnson is whether he will be able to get ramped up in time to leave Bailey in the dust. Although Michael has never raced at this short a distance, you have to believe his steely-minded competitiveness and racing savvy will give him an edge. You haven't seen Bailey put together any 57 race winning streaks lately.
Prediction: Johnson wins, Bailey whines.
In my opinion, a far more intriguing race will be taking place in The Netherlands on the same day. World record holders Nourredinne Morceli and Haile Gebrselassie will battle at two miles, winner taking a cool million dollars. Well, there is one small catch. To collect the dough, the winner will have to break eight minutes for the two miles, a feat never previously accomplished. That's two four minute miles back to back, a tall order indeed.
Like Bailey and Johnson, Morceli and Gebrselassie won gold medals in Atlanta, at 1500 and 10,000 meters respectively. Both of these fine athletes have not only established themselves at the dominant performers of their generations, each has taken times at their best distances to a realm previously thought to be unattainable. Morceli has run 1500 meters in 3:27:37 and the mile in 3:44:39. If you were to run twice as slowly as Morceli's world record mile, that would still be a 7:28. That is: you run two laps at 7:28 pace, and he has lapped you twice and finished a full mile. Amazing.
Gebrselaisse's records are no less impressive. The Ethiopian took the 5000 meter record down by more than 10 seconds, to 12:44:39. He also took the 10,000 down to 26:43:53, a mark that has since been bettered by Moroccan Saleh Hissou (26:38). How fast is 26:43 for 10k? Just better than 4:20 per mile for 6.2 miles. You could run more than 10 minutes slower for 10k and still average under six minutes a mile for that distance. Gebrselassie is not exactly lacking for speed at the shorter distances. He has run 3:32:39 for 1500 meters and holds the indoor world record at 3000 meters, at 7:30:72.
So, who will win this race of races? Will either break eight minutes? It's hard to say who will win, not knowing exactly each athlete's level of preparation and focus. With a full track season ahead, culminating in the world championships in Athens this August, it is questionable which if either of the runners will be a peak form. Gebrselaisse, for his part, has made it clear that winning the match race with Morceli takes precedence over anything else he might accomplish later on this year.
On the surface, one would lean towards picking Morceli, strictly on the basis of his slightly superior speed. When it comes down to a kick, the smooth striding Algerian seems to be unbeatable. After a disastrous seventh place finish in the Olympic 1500 meter final in Barcelona (1992), Morceli did not lose another single race at that distance before Atlanta. He simply toyed with the field en route to the gold medal. Nourredine proved his mental toughness in that race. He had accomplished virtually everything at 1500 meters/mile distance, except for a gold medal. The pressure on him to win was immense, much like that on Sebastian Coe in the Moscow Olympics in 1980.
All Gebrselaisse had to do to capture his gold medal was fight off Kenyan Paul Tergat over 25 pressure packed laps of the hot Atlanta track. Tergat was viewed by many as the finest talent in distance running, having won three consecutive world cross country championships, and run a scintillating 58 minute world record at the half marathon. Tergat shadowed Gebrselaisse for the entire second half of the race, as the two separated themselves from the rest of the world class field. Tergat could not get by the plucky Ethiopian however, as a mere second was the difference at the finish line. The race took so much out of Haile that he was forced to abandon his plans to run the 5000 later in the week, but he rose to the occasion at 10,000, accomplishing the monumental feat of beating Tergat. Clearly, he was the only athlete in the world capable of that.
The world record for two mile is currently 8:03, set by Kenyan Daniel Komen last year. Komen also holds the 3000 meter record of 7:20. Both Morceli and Gebrselassie have been close to that time, which compares favorably with sub-eight for two miles. If they go under 7:30 for 3000, they need only hold that pace for another 200 meters to get the historic mark. It was just over 43 years ago that Roger Bannister achieved the "impossible" by running 3:59.4 for the mile on Iffley road in Oxford. There was no prize money or television time at stake in 1954, only a place in history. Now, we will watch to see if either can run twice the distance that Bannister covered at a similar pace.
Prediction: Both will be under the eight minute mark in an exciting race. Score one for the distance runners: Gebrselassie in 7:57.