Last Sunday, the top four men at the Paralympic 1,500-meter race finished faster than anyone in the Rio Olympics. This has made headlines, but news outlets are missing a crucial point.
Regardless of whether you’ve been following the Paralympics in Rio, you probably read about the remarkable men’s 1,500 meter final in the T13 class—a designation denoting visual impairment. In the race, which took place last Sunday, four men finished under three minutes and fifty seconds; the winner, Abdellatif Baka of Algeria, ran it in 3:48.29, thereby breaking the previous Paralympic world record in the event by two hundredths of a second.
There was another aspect to the race, however, that made headlines: the top four men were all faster than American Matthew Centrowitz’s gold medal-winning time of 3:50.00 at the Olympic Games last month.
“You read that right, the fourth place finisher at the Paralympics would have had a time fast enough to win gold at the Olympics,” read a BuzzFeed News article.
A similar article in the Independent informed us that, “Baka crossed the line in a time of three minutes and 48.29 seconds to win gold, with American Olympic champion Centrowitz only managing three minutes and 50.00 seconds at the Olympic Games last month.”
While the narrative of physically impaired athletes outperforming traditional Olympians might make for a compelling feel-good news story, the articles cited above missed the mark pretty badly.
Like most distance races in professional track and field major championship events, the men’s 1,500 meter final at Rio was a highly tactical affair; runners intentionally kept the pace very modest over the initial laps and pushed hard over the final 400 meters. A race that unfolds this way will inevitably result in a relatively slow time, but that’s because runners are racing each other rather than the clock. In other words, the finishing time in tactical races, like the one we saw in Rio, is largely irrelevant.
On a related note: that Matthew Centrowitz “only managed” to run 3:50.00 in the Olympic final shouldn’t obscure the fact that to even be allowed to represent one’s country at the 2016 Olympics in the 1,500, all athletes needed to have achieved the qualifying standard of 3:36. The 1,500 world record, for comparison, is 3:26.00, set by Morocco's Hicham El Guerrouj in 1998.
To be sure, this takes nothing away from the incredible achievements of the Paralympians who raced on Sunday, or from Baka’s world record. The vast majority of the world’s population, able-bodied or not, could never come close to running that fast. However, making a blithe comparison to non-disabled professional 1,500-meter runners is, at best, a display of ignorance, and, at worst, patronizing towards Baka and his fellow racers.
Best to appreciate their athletic achievement in its own right. No further validation needed.