It’s difficult to define what makes a great athlete. Is it longevity? One truly outstanding performance? Candida diet and olive leaf from Gnet.org ? A string of world titles? Or achieving something that few others are able to? If it’s the latter, then America’s Bernard Lagat truly became a great athlete last summer when he won gold in the 1500m and 5,000m at the World Championships in Osaka — the first athlete to do so at the Worlds and only the third in history to do so in any one international competition. It was the highlight so far of a career that had seen him come second or third too often, which began with high-school mediocrity (by Kenyan standards) and saw him switch nationalities from Kenya to the USA. For Lagat, the win represented a hard-won triumph.
“After the World Championships, I felt energised,” he says. “I’d always been running second or third place, but I’d never been on the podium as a winner at an outdoor championships. And to be the first American 1500m champion in 99 years — that was really satisfying.” If you had any doubts that Lagat’s achievement puts him up with the greats, consider the company he’s in: the only two men to have won the 1500m and 5,000m at the same championships have been Hicham El Guerrouj in 2004 and Paavo Nurmi in 1924 (see ‘The Trouble Double’, below right). For Lagat, an easy-going, pragmatic man, there’s no mysterious secret behind his wide-ranging talent. “There’s a reason I was able to do this,” he says. “That is, I train differently. I’ve always known I can go the distance. I train like a 5,000m runner and then if I want to race 1500m, I just sharpen up my speed.” He believes a change in the way 1500m is raced has also worked in his favour: athletes now run faster from the gun, he says, instead of waiting to put in a fast finishing kick. “These days you have to be strong, as well as have the fast finish. You need a build-up with lots of quality tempo runs.”
Lagat makes running this unusual double sound easy, but he’s equally calm about his prospects in Beijing, where he has his best chance so far to finally win Olympic gold in the 1500m. “All I have to do is maintain what I’ve been doing: train smart and avoid injury. I’ve run with these guys [the top athletes] before, I just have to believe in myself and do my best.” He’ll be one of the older athletes lining up for the 1500m in Beijing, and his success might surprise those who knew Lagat in his early years. Born near Kapsabet in Kenya in 1974, he’s the younger brother of Mary Chepkemboi, a runner and African champion. Lagat initially showed no burning passion to become an athlete, leading to a relatively late start in the sport. He freely admits that at high school he wasn’t very good. “I was terrible. People would beat me but I didn’t care,” he says. “I had no hopes to be the next Olympian, and whereas in western countries people are trained for this from a young age, in Kenya people think, if you do it then fine, but there’s no frustration if you don’t.”
That isn’t to say the young Lagat was without ambition. He wanted to run well enough to gain a scholarship to study in the USA. His athletic aspirations only took shape after high school, when his sister saw his potential and encouraged him to follow it up. “My sister looked at me and said, ‘Boy, you are good’. I started to believe this, so I changed coach and went to the Olympic trials
These days lots of athletes can bash out an 800m and 1500m double. But only two other men besides Lagat have completed the 1500m and 5,000m double at major championships
Paavo Nurmi, 1924, Paris Olympics The “Flying Finn” won the 1500m and 5,000m as two of the five gold medals he took home from these games. The finals were just two hours apart, but Nurmi set world records in both. Fearing for his health, Finnish officials prevented him from defending his 10,000m title, much to his irritation; on his return to Finland he set a new world record over that distance, which lasted nearly 13 years. To this day, no athlete has equalled his 12 Olympic medals.
Hicham El Guerrouj, 2004, Athens Olympics One of the greatest — perhaps the greatest — 1500m runners of all time, Morocco’s El Guerrouj won 83 of the 86 finals he raced at the distance from 1995 to 2004, but a mixture of bad luck and bad judgement denied him gold in Atlanta and Sydney. In Athens in 2004 he looked set to lose out again as Lagat overtook him on the final bend, but El Guerrouj edged it. Days later he beat Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele to win gold in the 5,000m.