On the 15th of October 1968, 23-year-old Ralph Doubell from Melbourne became the 800m Olympic champion in Mexico City and his time of 1:44.3 (hand timed, 1:44.40 electronic timing) equaled Peter Snell’s (NZL) world record.
For decades Australian athletes and their coaches have had Doubell’s magic mark to aim for.
In 1982, aged 24 Peter Bourke (VIC) won the Brisbane Commonwealth Games and earlier that year ran 1:44.78. Thirty year later, Jeff Riseley (VIC) ran 1:44.48 aged 25, just weeks before the London 2012 Olympic Games and looked like he would be the one.
In 2013, Alex Rowe (VIC) just missed the world championships final but got a new-found confidence and felt the record was achievable. With his coach Justin Rinaldi, who was himself a 1:47 800m runner in the 90s, made it their goal for 2014.
Following four wins in Europe, Rowe ran the Monaco Diamond League, just ahead of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, and remarkably equalled the record of 1:44.40.
Rowe, 22, said at the time of equalling the record.
“It is something I have been aspiring to do for many years and it’s great to see that the hard work has paid off.”
Unfortunately, over the next few seasons injuries and studying for his medicine degree prevented Rowe from breaking the mark.
Some historians may have figured the 50th anniversary of the Australian record would come and go in October 2018 but Rinaldi and his two outstanding talents Peter Bol and Joseph Deng, who came to Australia as Sudanese refugees when they were young boys, had other plans.
Rinaldi who specialises in coaching 800m runners has had three athletes capable of breaking the record and it has been a goal for five years now.
“In 2013 when Alex ran 1:45 and made the world champs semi-final the obvious goal was the record as he had been improving a second a year. So that was the goal in training for 2013/14.
“Last year I thought Peter could get the record, but he just couldn’t get the opportunity in the right race. He was in better shape then, but we just couldn’t get him into the right race. He ran his personal best in a little race in Germany in the pouring rain and if he had of got a good race I think he would have got it last year.
“This year with Pete and Joe racing the way they were, it was more expected that they would break the record rather than hoping they would get it.”
Bol, who represented Australia at the Rio 2016 Olympics, missed 10 weeks of training over the Australian summer which ruined his chances of qualifying for the Commonwealth Games.
Deng finished 7th at the Commonwealth Games, aged just 19, after selectors chose him on discretion after he missed the A final but his B Final time was the fastest at Trials.
The pair would have five races in Europe and Rinaldi sought the help of manager James Templeton to ensure they had lanes in several big races that would assist with their campaign for the record, and show meet promoters what they are capable of for future seasons.
Deng started his European campaign with a 1:44.97 personal best on 3 June for second in the Netherlands at the FBK Games. They both then contested the Stockholm Diamond League on 10 June where Bol (1:44.56) won the battle down the home straight over Deng (1:44.61).
Six days later in Germany the pair went 1-2 again, Bol 1:45.41 to Deng’s 1:45.70.
Bol’s third race of the season was in France on 27 June where he was fourth in 1:45.35.
The pair then contested the Paris Diamond League on 30 June where Deng went close to his personal best again to finish 6th in 1:44.67, with Bol 10th (1:45.82).
They then returned to their base in Belgium for three weeks to ready themselves for their final race of the season in Monaco with Rinaldi providing guidance from Melbourne.
The Monaco Race
Work commitments meant Rinaldi wasn’t able to be in Monaco when Rowe equalled the record in 2014 but he made a surprise appearance for the race on 20 July. He flew 16,000 kilometres for one race.
“We kept it a secret that I was coming,” Rinaldi explained. “I rocked up at the hotel the day before the meet and surprised them. I even had to do some fake Instagram posts to keep the secret.
“I think it helped them relax having me there. They just felt like it was a normal day and not a massive race.
“I wanted to be there because I didn’t want to miss another opportunity of seeing one of my athletes equal or break the record. Because it does happen that often.”
“I was very confident. Based off the previous four races both the guys had run and how their training had gone I actually thought both of them would go under the record. So, I had a double chance of the record going, which was good.”
Both athletes were feeling good and were excited to race on the Monaco track which is famous for fast races and a great atmosphere.
“They were really relaxed when we went to the track the day before the race. They were joking around saying ‘this looks like a great place to race’. Before the race they get a little bit nervous. Joe is normally a little bit more relaxed than Pete. I could tell they were a little bit nervous but excited to run well.”
For the race Rinaldi was sitting with Templeton on the back straight. Both Aussies started from the same lane in their bright yellow club colours to stand-out in the 12-man field. Deng sat mid field and Bol further back after the first lap.
“I distinctly remember when the leaders went through 400 in 48.9 and we knew Joe was fairly close to that, so we thought he might have gone through too fast,” Rinaldi recalls.
“In hindsight when you look at the splits it was probably the perfect pace for him. But when you’re watching it live we thought it might have been too fast.
“When Jo started making a move down the back straight and ran out wide, I thought ‘well he’s still full of running’ so I got excited, and it was exciting to watch.
“The last 100 was a bit of a blur, it was very exciting and I knew that the athletes that Deng was finishing close to are top calibre and I knew he had the record!”
Deng ran 1:44.21 to break Doubell and Rowe’s mark by 0.19 seconds. The 20-year-old had created history by running a personal best by 0.40s in his final race of the season. It was also his fourth sub 1:45 in five races.
His great mate Bol was ninth in 1:46.64 to top off an outstanding season, especially considering me missed 10 weeks with injury over the Australian summer. The race was won in the 5th fastest time in history, 1:42.14, by Nigel Amos (BOT).
The Key Elements to breaking the record
“Consistent training and then getting in the right races was the key to breaking the record,” Rinaldi said.
“You can be really fit and in really good shape but unless you are in the right race it’s really hard to do a performance like that.
“Getting James Templeton involved this year to get them in the right races and show their fitness really made all the difference.”
The bond between the two young men, and the respect and relationship the trio have was also a key factor.
“There is no animosity between them,” Rinaldi said. “They both want to be the best athletes they can be and happy to share the success. But they are very competitive, whether its playing X-box or basketball before training, they want to beat each other. So, it’s a friendly rivalry and they are very competitive which is really good. They are like brothers!”
Deng said of Rinaldi, “He helps me with a lot. Not just athletics stuff but things outside of athletics, so it’s been a really good relationship.”
Deng gives a lot of credit to Bol for his performances on and off the track. He also paid tribute to his early coaches including Diane Sheppard at Ipswich Grammar who coached him before he moved to Melbourne.
He also said his Commonwealth Games experience and making the final gave him confidence for the European campaign.
The Reaction to the New Australian Record
“I was super stoked to finally get the record,” Deng recalled his emotions from Monaco. “My coach and I and Peter have been working towards this goal since moving from Brisbane to Melbourne. And to finally break the record was one of my biggest goals so I’m happy with that.
“There have been a lot of athletes that have tried to break the record and it was very important to us that the record didn’t turn 50, so we just had to come out and do it.”
Bol was thrilled for his good mate. As long as one of them broke the record he was happy.
“Man, I’m happy for Joe and happy for our squad,” Bol said. “The main objective was to get the record broken, whether I do it or Joe.”
Rowe sent Rinaldi and Deng a congratulatory text straight after the race.
#dengfever was the talk of the town on social with congratulations coming from around the globe as well as media coverage of the historical achievement.
Doubell was in Europe and thought that the record could be under threat in Monaco. He delayed his dinner plans to see the results. He told the Alan Jones Show on 2GB in Sydney how pleased he was for Deng while also providing advice.
“I congratulate him. I reinforce, don’t concentrate on trying to run fast times, try to win fast tactical races in major events. So long as he concentrates on trying to win races instead of trying to run fast times, he will improve.”
Doubell equalled Snell’s world record when he won Olympic gold but he had no idea what Snell’s time was.
“I never worried about times. In fact, I had to ask Tom Farrell (bronze, USA) what the world record time was,” Doubell told 2GB.
What is next?
Deng and Bol have their sights set on the World Championship final in Doha in October, and then success at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
“World Champs final for sure and run under the record again,” Deng said.
Both men will return to training after a three week break with Rinaldi having already mapped out the likely plan for next year.
“Because the World Championships are quite late next year it is kind of a different season,” Rinaldi said, looking to 2019.
“We’re going to attempt to go indoors, whether that’s in the US or Europe and do maybe two or three races and then come back and do the Australian season. And then have a little break and then off to Europe in June or July until the World Champs.
“We didn’t want to be greedy and extend this season to the Continental Cup. We wanted to go there and achieve our goal and come back and get ready for next season and not take any risks.”
New audience for athletics in Australia?
“Yeah for sure, hopefully in the African community there will be a few more athletes that train now and Peter and I can inspire more athletes to achieve their goals and bring more attention to athletics in Australia,” Deng said.
Rinaldi is hopeful Deng and Bol can attract more interest in the sport and have talented young sportsmen and women choose athletics.
“Any media for athletics and AA is great because we need more attention and momentum to our sport,” Rinaldi said.
“Hopefully they inspire other Sudanese kids or anyone to get involved with the sport. I think there is a lot of untapped talent out there and in our Aboriginal communities. I think there is a lot of talent there we just don’t have access to it. AFL might attract some of the indigenous athletes but I think athletics can find the next Cathy Freeman out there for sure.
“There is so much talent there, it is definitely not just African born talent it is everywhere. It’s just a matter of getting them involved early before they get involved in other sports. There is definitely more Peter Bols and Joseph Dengs out there we’ve just got to find them.”
Remarkably the day after Doubell won Olympic gold and equalled the world record, Peter Norman stormed home for silver in the 200m in 20.06 (hand-time adjusted). This is now the longest standing Australian record in athletics events contested at the Olympic Games and world championships.
Australian All-Time Top 10 for Men’s 800m
||Joseph Deng VIC
||Monaco, 20 Jul 18
||Ralph Doubell VIC
||Mexico, 15 Oct 68
||Alex Rowe VIC
||Monaco, 18 Jul 14
||Jeff Riseley VIC
||Lignano, Italy 17 Jul 12
||Peter Bol VIC
||Stockholm, Sweden 10 Jun 18
||Peter Bourke VIC
||Brisbane, 20 Mar 82
||Brendan Hanigan TAS
||Lappeenranta, Finland 26 Jul 94
|| Luke Mathews VIC
||Melbourne, 5 Mar 16
||Grant Cremer NSW
||Seville, Spain 27 Aug 99
||Bill Hooker VIC
||London, England 14 July 73