The current 800 metres Olympic champion is struggling. I think I’m going to beat him, but this is a race neither of us will be able to finish. Perhaps Wilfred Bungei and I should not have gone for the 700-gram T-bone at the Grillhouse in Rosebank this week. We’re stuffed, utterly full and we haven’t even eaten half of the beef in front of us.
In the end it’s a close thing, but it looks like Bungei has held on to pip me by about two bites of his well-done T-bone to my medium-rare one, but we’re both pushing it at the end, well out of our comfort zones. He’s had closer finishes and more important wins than this, no less than his last competitive race as an athlete – the 800m final in Beijing.
He won that by 0.05sec from Ismail Ahmed Ismail of Sudan, his winning time 1:44.65 in one of the toughest runs of modern times.
It was an old-fashioned victory. Starting in lane three, he went out hard, taking the lead after the first bend. He never let it go, holding off the favourites, Ismail and his countryman Alfred Kirwa Yego, then the reigning world champion, who would eventually come third.
“It’s a mental thing,” said Bungei. “When you are expected to do well, you don’t. The Olympics is strange like that. In 2004 (at the Athens Olympics) I was one of the favourites but could not get further enough in front. The pace wasn’t quick enough in the first lap (51.84sec).”
Bungei ended fifth in Athens, the race won by Russian Yuriy Borzakovskiy, who put in a late surge to beat Wilson Kipketer, Bungei’s second cousin and the greatest 800m runner never to win an Olympic gold medal. Kipketer, who had moved to Denmark, was pipped for second by South Africa’s Mbulaeni Mulaudzi, who dipped his head at the line.
Mulaudzi had run a clever race, following Bungei before putting in a final effort. In the week leading up to the race, Mulaudzi had wanted to go home after a poor showing at a meet in Zurich shortly before the Games. He was worried that he would embarrass himself and his country, but his roommate, Hezekiel Sepeng, who finished sixth behind Bungei in that race and was named manager of the South African athletics squad for London this week, convinced him to stay. I tell Bungei this and he looks surprised.
“Really? It didn’t show. See? It’s strange. The Olympics are all in the head. In 2008 I wasn’t the favourite, but I knew that if I went out from the start and kept going that I had a good chance. I never kicked at the end. I knew I had enough to win. At the end I was pushing myself harder than ever.”
“He was swimming,” laughs James Wokabi, a Kenyan journalist sitting next to Bungei at the Grillhouse. Bungei has a strange running style, his right arm pointing away from his body in a, well, swimming action as his left arm pumps away. Bungei joins in the laughter, taking the jibe well.
His celebrations on the podium at the Bird’s Nest in Beijing were enthusiastic as Sam Ramsamy, the South African on the IOC executive, presented him with his medal.
He confirmed his retirement shortly thereafter, bringing an end to a 10-year career that had seen him win silver at the 2001 world championships and gold at the 2006 world indoor championships (beating Mulaudzi). He has the seventh-fastest 800m of all time (1:42.34), which he set in 2002 when he was world No 1.
Kenya was the top African country at the Beijing Olympics, ending 15th overall on the medal table thanks to their five gold, four silver and five bronze medals.
Bungei comes from Kabirisang, a village near the top of a hill in the tea plantations of the Kenyan Highlands that has spawned some Kenyan running greats, including the legend that is Henry Rono, who broke four world records in the 3 000m steeplechase, 5 000m and 10 000m in a mere 81 days back in 1978. Kabirisang can lay claim to more than 30 medals in the 800m with more world, Commonwealth, African and Olympic titles than any other place in the history of the event.
Having based himself in Italy for part of the year during his career, Bungei has now moved back to Kenya. His heart still belongs to Kabirisang.
Yet, the next Olympic champion, in Bungei’s opinion, is not from the home of Kenyan middle-distance running. It is David Rudisha, the 23-year-old from the Masai tribe in the Trans Mara district in the south-west of Kenya. Last year, in an interview with Kenya’s Daily Nation, he said the runners of Kabirisang must “honour their sacrifice (of Rono and Kipchoge Keino) by wresting back the world record from David Rudisha”.
“No one can beat Rudisha at these Olympics,” said Bungei. “He’s too strong, I don’t think anyone else will be able to touch him.”
Rudisha is the current world champion and world record holder (1:41.01, set in 2010), having missed out on the 2008 Olympics because of injury. He could well have won the 2009 world championships in Berlin, but was boxed in. Mulaudzi won that race, his last big victory. The South African has missed out on London, an injury proving too much for him to overcome. Rudisha is the outright favourite to win, but strange things happen at the Olympics. Sometimes you come up against a 700g T-bone of a race that has the beating of you.