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The Historic Series on Olympic Running (III): Men’s 800m

Nils Schumann with the Gold Medal, and three Bronze Medals since the beginning of the Olympic Games


In less than two months, the Olympic Games will be opening in Athens. Each week until then we will be introducing one of the eleven running disciplines, as well as naming the favourites for the Olympic gold medals.
This series, however, is on the history of Olympic running—about the past, rich in medals, of the German track and field athletes from both East (GDR) and West (FRG).
While in the past German track and field has been very successful at the Olympic Games, following the results of the world championships in 2003, one should not expect too much in Athens. It seems even more appropriate then to remember the great achievements of the Germans in the past and to honour their performances.
Today we will look at the men’s 800m race.
This series on the history of Olympic running will follow the weekly series on running which focuses on Athens 2004—out of respect for the great achievements and as an inspiration for imitation.

Similar to the 1500m, the 800m has a long Olympic tradition and has been part of the Olympic programme since 1896. The two most successful nations in the 800m have been the USA and Great Britain, both of which, interestingly enough, were not present in the 800m and 1500m in 1896 in Athens.
Since 1896, 75 medals have been awarded, of which 22 have gone to the USA, including 9 gold medals. Great Britain follows with 10 medals, including 6 gold. Not much more has to be said about the superiority of these middle distance nations.
Since 1896, a total of 24 countries have participated in the fight for the medals at the Olympic Games, which documents the popularity of this fast 2-lap middle distance race.

Nils Schumann crowned the long tradition of the German middle distance runners with a gold medal.
The list of German successes in the men’s 800m include 19 finalists from 1st to 9th place. Like in the 1500m, the Germans have achieved great accomplishments with victories at the European and World Championships, as well as world records, but until Nils Schumann’s surprising victory at the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000, the gold medal had been elusive. The German female 800m runners have had greater success than the men, with 3 gold medals — and that although the 800m was not introduced until 1928, and then later dropped again for a long period.
Three bronze medals won by Hanns Braun (1908 / London), Hermann Engelhard (1928 / Amsterdam) and Heinz Ulzheimer (1952 / Helsinki) and four fourth place finishes by Paul Schmidt (1960 /Rome), Walter Adams (1968 / Mexico City), Franz-Josef Kemper (1972 / Munich) and Willi Wülbeck ( 1976 / Montréal) are the results of a long running tradition which unfortunately is not always directly reflected through the winning of medals.
Overview of the distribution of medals of the most successful nations in the 800m:
Germany: 1 Gold / 0 Silver / 3 x Bronze / 4 x 4th place / 3 x fifth place / 5 x sixth place / 1 x seventh place / 1 x eighth place / 1 x ninth place

USA: 9 G / 5 S / 8 B
GBR: 6 G / 3 S / 1 B
KEN: 2 G / 2 S / 3 B
AUS: 2 G
NZL: 2 G
BRA: 1 G / 1 S
NOR: 1 G / 1 B
CUB: 1 G
CAN: 0 G / 2 S / 2 B
ITA: 0 G / 2 S
BEL: 0 G / 2 S
JAM: 0 G / 2 S
URS: 0 G / 2 S

A further 10 countries won silver and bronze medals.

Athens 1896 – Only 3 runners in the finals

Charles Kilpatrick (USA) set a new world record in the 880yard race on September 21, 1895 in New York in 1:53.4, but no Americans participated in Athens. Traun came in third in the first preliminaries in 2:14.0 (estimated time), Kurt Doerry, who was injured in the 100m, did not participate.

Finals (April 9. 1896):
1.Edwin Flack (AUS) 2:11.0 – 2. Nandor Dani (HUN) 2:11.8 – Demetrius Golemis (GRE) 2:28.0 (estimated time)

Paris 1900 – Werkmüller only in the preliminaries

Werkmüller: 4th in the preliminaries with no time kept

Finals (July 16, 1900)
1. Alfred Tysoe (GBR) – 2:01.4 - 2. John Cregan (USA) 2:03.0 (estimated time) 3. David Hall (USA) – (no time)

St. Louis 1904 – 5th place again for Johannes Runge

"Three runners collapsed, and all gave their best." Johannes Runge was considered to be the favourite by the American press. But in the finals he was closed in by the nine (9!) Americans and was not able to start his sprint early enough — and the climate knocked him out, as well.
Finals (September 1, 1904)
5. Johannes Runge 1:57.1 (estimated time) 1. James Lightbody (USA) 1:56.0 (OR) 2. Howard Valentine (USA) 1:56.2* – 3. Emil Breitkreuz (USA) 1:56.3* - 4. George Underwood (USA) 1:56.5*
* estimated time

London 1908 – Hanns Braun rewarded with the bronze medal

This time, the Europeans were considered to have a chance against the Americans. Lightbody (USA), the defending champion, was eliminated in the preliminaries. After the first lap, Braun was already lagging at the back, the first 400m run in 53.0. 120 metres before the finish, Braun started a final sprint that “disregarded the already murderous pace”, according to one spectator, and just five metres before the finish, his untiring energy triumphed, rewarding him with the well-earned bronze medal.
Finals (July 21, 1908)
1. Melvin Sheppard (USA) 1:52.8 WR – 2. Emilio Lunghi (ITA) 1:54.2 – 3. Hanns Braun 1:55.2

Stockholm 1912 – Sixth place for Hanns Braun

Ekkehard zur Megede writes: “In the eyes of the Germans, the 800m was THE event at the Olympic Games in Stockholm. Hanns Braun (b. October 26, 1886 in Munich, 1.80m, 60 kg), who won the Olympic bronze medal in London, had won the British Championships in the 880 yard race three times, which means something!” However, Braun had no chance against the six (6!) Americans – and he had no final sprint.

Finals ( July 8. 1912):
6. Hanns Braun 1:53.1
1. James Meredith (USA) 1:51.9 WR – 2. Melvon Sheppard (USA) 1:52.0 – 3. Ira Davenport (USA) 1:52.0

Amsterdam 1928 – Engelhard, the bronze medal surprise – Peltzer, just a shadow of himself

As often occurs in great sporting careers, Dr. Otto Peltzer, the German middle distance record man, was not able to demonstrate his true abilities during the Olympic Games. In 1926, he ran 1:51.6 for the 880-yard world record in London, and on September 11, 1926, he set a sensational world record in the 1500m at the SCC Sport Fest Stadium at the AVUS in Berlin in 3:51.0, with a victory over Paavo Nurmi and Edwin Wide. He had injured himself playing handball, and although he was able to win the second preliminary in 1:57.4, he was only 5th in the intermediates.
The outsider Hermann Engelhard made it to the finals (b. June 21, 1903 in Darmstadt, 1.76m, 65 kg) and even managed to beat the world record holder Séraphin Martin (FRA) – 1:50.6.

Finals (July, 31, 1928): 1. Douglas Lowe (GBR) 1:51.8 (OR) – 2. Erik Byléhn (SWE) 1:52.8 – 3. Hermann Engelhard 1:53.2

Los Angeles 1932 – Otto Peltzer resigned in the Finals, Max Danz in the Preliminaries

Max Danz, who later headed the DLV (German track and field federation)for many years as the president, was fifth in the 3rd preliminary in 1:59.2 – Otto Peltzer resigned in the finals.

Finals (August 2, 1932) 9. Otto Peltzer – no time -
1. Thomas Hampson (GBR) 1:49.7 (WR) – Alexander Wilson (CAN) 1:49.9 – Philip Edwards (CAN) 1:51.5

Berlin 1936 – No Germans made it further – Rudolf Harbig was just at the beginning of his career

Wolfgang Dessecker and Ewald Mertens were eliminated in the intermediates. Rudolf Harbig, later the world record holder in the 800m (1:46.6 on July 15, 1939 in Milan) and 400m (46.0 – August 12, 1939 in Frankfurt), who was not at his best (intestinal disease), was sixth in the preliminaries.
Helsinki 1952 – Bronze for Heinz Ulzheimer – Günther Steines Sixth

For the first time since WWII, Germany was again allowed to participate in the XV Olympic Games in Helsinki. The Soviet Union participated for the first time ever.

Heinz Ulzheimer and Günther Steines easily reached the finals, while the German 800m champion from 1951, Urban Cleve, was eliminated in 5th place in 1:51.6 in his intermediate race, even though his time was faster than Ulzheimer, the winner of a different intermediate race in 1:51.9.
The greatest threat to Ulzheimer on the last 100m was the sprint by Nielsen of Denmark, who came to Helsinki with a house record of 1:52.3 and surpassed his best time in the finals. At the finish, Ulzheimer threw out his chest and caught Nielsen with an identical time.

Finals (July 22,1952):
6. Günther Steines 1:50.6
1. Malvin Whitfield (USA) 1:49.2 (met the OR) – 2. Arthur Wint (JAM) 1:49.4 – 3. Heinz Ulzheimer 1:49.7 – 4. Gunnar Nielsen (DEN) 1:49.7

Melbourne 1956 – 3 German runners in the preliminaries only

In Melbourne, the 3 German participants did not make it past the preliminaries. Paul Schmidt was just at the start of his career, Klaus Richtzenhain was conserving his energy for the 1500m, and Günther Dohrow already had his best times behind him.

Rome 1960 – Paul Schmidt fought out the Bronze – Manfred Matuschewski Sixth

Peter Snell (NZL) became as star in Rome — and the favourite Roger Moens (BEL) was his victim. For the first time in the 800m, the first 100m were run in lanes. Two German runners again made it to the finals. The third runner, Jörg Balke (PSV Berlin), who ran faster in the preliminaries in 1:47.5 than any previous Olympic Champion, still was eliminated.
At the finals, Snell surprised the favourite on the inside lane and stormed off to victory. Paul Schmidt (b. August 9,1931 in Groß-Nebrau/West Prussia, 1.72 m, 64 kg) ran a good race but could not make a run for the medals. Manfred Matuschewski turned 21 on that day, (1.76 m, 63 kg) and was not able to achieve more than 6th place, which, however, was well-earned.
Finals (September 2, 1960):
6. Manfred Matuschewski 1:52.0
1.Peter Snell (NZL) 1:46.3 (OR) – 2. Roger Moens (BEL) 1:46.5 – 3. Georg Kerr (West-Ind.) 1:47.1 – 4. Paul Schmidt 1:47.6

Tokyo 1964 – Dieter Bogatzki 7th
There were three German 800m runners in Tokyo: Manfred Kinder (b. April 20, 1938 / Wuppertaler SV), Manfred Matuschewski and Dieter Bogatzki (b. January 25, 1942 / USC Mainz). Kinder and Matuschewski ran good times in the intermediates, but still were eliminated. Only Dieter Bogatzki made it to the finals.
Peter Snell, a student of Arthur Lydiard, defended his title from Rome and was double Olympic champion in the 800m and 1500m. Dieter Bogatzki set a personal best in the intermediates with a time of 1:46.9.

Finals (October 16, 1964)
7. Dieter Bogatzki 1:47.2 1. Peter Snell (NZL 1:45.1 (OR) – 2. William Crothers (CAN) 1:45.6 – Wislon Kiprugut (KEN) 1:45.9

Mexico 1968 – Walter Adams and Dieter Fromm in the finals - Kemper eliminated

Again, there were two Germans in the finals. Franz-Josef Kemper, the European record holder, was eliminated in the intermediates due to an illness with a time of 1:47.3. Walter Adams (b. March 15,1945 in Wasseralfingen, 1.72 m, 67 kg) and Dieter Fromm (b. April 21, 1948 in Bad Langensalza, 1.76 m, 64 kg). Walter Adams, a student of Paul Schmidt’s (now coach of the federation), was side by side with Thomas Farrell (USA) 40 metres before the finish. There was a very dramatic final battle between the two, which was decided to the advantage of the American.
The Australian experts anticipated Ralph Doubell (AUS), a student of the famous trainer Franz Stampfl, to be the champion and world record man. And that is exactly what he was:

Finals (October 15, 1968):
6. Dieter Fromm 1:46.2
1.Ralph Doubell (AUS) 1:44.3 (matched the WR) – 2. Wilson Kiprugut (KEN) 1:44.5 – 3. Thomas Farrell (USA) 1:45.4 – 4. Walter Adams 1:45.8

Munich 1972 – Fourth place for Franz-Josef Kemper – Dieter Fromm Eighth

In Munich, again two German runners made it to the finals. Walter Adams was not able to survive the preliminaries due to an injury, while Josef Schmid made it to the preliminaries where he came in fourth in 1:48.8. Dave Wottle (USA), the man with the cap, and Franz-Josef Kemper (b. September 30, 1945 / Preußen Münster) were the millimetre runners who made their way from what looked like hopeless positions to victory.
It appeared that Arshanow (URS) could not be caught, but Wottle managed to reach him at the finish. Franz-Josef Kemper, who had been in the back in 8th place - like Wottle before -, sprinted in his unique style to fourth place.
Dieter Fromm spent all of his energy in early fighting for positioning in the first lap and had nothing left for the finish.
Finals (September 2, 1972):
8. Dieter Fromm 1:48.0 1. David Wottle (USA) 1:45.9 – 2. Jewgeni Arshanow (URS) 1:45.9 – 3. Mike Boit (KEN) 1:46.0 – 4. Franz-Josef Kemper 1:46.5

Montréal – 1976 – Willi Wülbeck improved from 1:47.1 to 1:45.26

Paul-Heinz Wellmann, Thomas Wessinghage and Willi Wülbeck (b. December 18, 1954 / Rot Weiß Oberhausen) were the three German participants. Wellmann was eliminated in the preliminaries in 1:48.47, Thomas Wessinghage made it to the intermediates (7th in 1:48.18) – and only Wülbeck reached the finals.
“Leichtathletik“ writes: “Wülbeck ran the race of his life, avoided every possible tactical error, and in the end even put away Steve Ovett, who had beaten him in 1973 at the Junior-European-Championships in Duisburg.”
He was nominated for the Olympics with a time of 1:47.1, and in the finals came in fourth with a time of 1:45.26!
Alberto Juantorena (CUB) accomplished victories in both the 400m and the 800m.
Finals (July 25, 1976)
1. Alberto Juantorena (CUB) 1:43.50 (WR) – 2.Ivo van Damme (BEL) 1:43.86 – 3. Rick Wohlhuter (USA) 1:44.12 – 4. Willi Wülbeck 1:45.26

Moscow – 1980 – Andreas Busse and Detlef Wagenknecht in the Finals

Olaf Beyer was eliminated in the intermediates with a time of 1:47.6. In the finals, the first lap was run in 54.3 seconds. Then Ovett and the world record holder Coe fought it out. Coe began his sprint much too late and was just barely able to put down Nikolai Kirow (URS).
Busse (b. May 6, 1959 / SC Einheit Dresden) and Wagenknecht (b. January 3, 1959 / SC Dynamo Berlin) could not hold their own in the finals.
Finals (July 26, 1980):
5. Andreas Busse 1:46.9 – 6. Detlef Wagenknecht 1:47.0
1. Steve Ovett (GBR) 1:45.4 – 2. Sebastian Coe (GBR) – 1:45.9 – 3. Nikolai Kirow (URS) 1:46.0

Atlanta – 1996 – Nico Motchebon fifth with a fantastic time of 1:43.91

Joachim Dehmel was eliminated in the preliminaries in 1:47.12. Nico Motchebon (b. November 13, 1969 / Quelle Fürth) on the other hand fought out an excellent fifth place finish in the finals with a time of 1:43.91. Vebjörn Rodal (NOR) won the first gold medal ever for his country.
5. Nico Motchebon 1:43.91
1. Vebjörn Rodal (NOR) 1:42.58 – 2. Hezekiel Sepeng (RSA) 1:42.74 – 3. Fred Onyancha (KEN) 1:42.79

Sydney 2000 – Nils Schumann relieves the nation with a gold medal

"After 104 years of preparation", Nils Schumann (b. May 20, 1978 / SV Creaton Großengottern / Trainer Dieter Hermann) earned the long sought gold medal at the Olympic Games, thus crowning not only himself, but the decade-long dream of the German 800m runners to take the top step at the award ceremony at the Olympics.
1. Nils Schumann 1:45.08 – 2. Wilson Kipketer (DEN) 1:45.14 – 3. Djabir Said-Duerni (ALG) 1:45.18

The 800m is the heart of Olympic track and field.
Its history since 1896 is full of suspense, drama, tragedy, of the fall of favourites and sensational achievements, of the breakthrough of unknown athletes, but also of many names one never heard of again. Those who survived the preliminaries and intermediates, fighting their way to the finals, belong to the best of their trade. Many came as nobodies — and returned as shining stars and champions. But even worse, it was often the other way around.

It makes no sense to prevent athletes from participating because their chances to make it to the finals appear slim; one only has to look back over the 108 years of the history of the 800m to see that great favourites often came in last in the preliminaries, while nobodies made achievements beyond their comprehension, showing up the experts.
The German 800m runners have successfully been keeping up with the top nations in the “running generations“ and have made great accomplishments.
The future does not look easy, however.

Let us look forward to the glorious unexpectedness of Olympic competition.

Horst Milde

Interesting tips and supplementary information on the great Olympic history of the addressed topics may be sent to:
800m women (Olympia historic I):
1500 m men (Olympia historic II):

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