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Hail Galen!

Galen Rupp, Olympic 10,000 meters, London, August 4, 2012

[Found photo here. Not sure of proper credit.]

Michael and Gabby. Gabby and Michael. Geez. Enough already. Okay, so maybe Michael Phelps has won an astonishing number of Olympic medals, and this time he wasn’t even expected to be so dominant. And Gabby Douglas, well, I don’t know. What’s the big deal about her anyway?

What I’d like to know is why Galen Rupp isn’t the star of the day. I may not know a whole lot, but I’m kind of thinking he pulled off one of the greatest accomplishments in US track in decades.

It’s not easy to follow the 10,000 meters. Every four years, I look forward to watching it, and if I’m lucky, when I turn on the prime time replay, I see the first 3 or 4 (of 25) laps around the track, then an ad break, then maybe an update or two of some field events, another lap or two, another ad, and somewhere around the 25-minute mark, we come back to see the final three laps. By then, perhaps three great runners from Kenya or Ethiopia have broken from the pack and we have a couple of minutes to contemplate who can pull away on the final lap.

Enough of that. This year, I was determined to watch the live feed. I spent an hour at my desk watching the last swimming finals, took a break to run some errands, came home, and switched over to track.

There was something odd about the live feed. No announcers. I could hear the crowd noise, I could see the race develop, but I had to figure out for myself what was happening. Not entirely a bad thing. (Only five minutes after the race did I figure out that I had clicked on the secondary track feed. The primary one had commentary.)

The leading runners were tightly bunched. By maybe the halfway point, the bunch had strung out to single file, with occasional lead changes, but always among the same runners. The two Bekeles from Ethiopia (Kenenisa, defending his gold medals of 2004 and 2008, and Tariku). Mo Farah from the UK (born in Somalia, runner-up in the World Championships last year). A couple of Kenyans. Or was I mixing them up with the Eritreans? And, oddly enough, the US’s Galen Rupp, a strange sight amongst the contingent of East Africans.

If I could have heard the commentary, I might have been reminded that Rupp finished 7th in the 10,000 at last year’s World Championships. His presence wasn’t that big a surprise. But he would surely fade near the end. And I would have been reminded that he and Mo Farah train together under US running great Alberto Salazar in Portland, Farah having re-located there last year. (See Malcolm Gladwell’s article on Salazar in last week’s New Yorker.) I didn’t remember. All I knew was, the crowd was going crazy whenever Farah moved toward the front, and Rupp would fade.

Then came the 9600 meter mark. The bell lap. On the backstretch, Farah took control. Rupp began to fade. Entering the last turn, Rupp stopped fading. He made a move. He was ahead of the great Kenenisa Bekele. (I confess, I wasn’t clear on this. Without the commentary, I didn’t know who was who.) He was on the shoulder of Tariku Bekele. What’s this? He’s passing Tariku. He’s in second. He’s pulling away, as Farah is ahead of him.

Gold to Farah, silver Rupp, bronze to Tariku, no medal to Kenenisa in fourth. Farah finished in 27:30.42, not particularly fast, but that’s typical of tactical Olympic races. Rupp was just .48 seconds behind, both slowing as they crossed the line with their positions secure. Tariku was half a second behind Rupp, Kenenisa another second back.

Rupp was the lone finisher in the top eight not from East Africa. And the first US medalist in the event since, well, you know when. Yes, since Billy Mills shocked the world with his 1964 gold medal run in Tokyo. I’ll never forget that. Not that I saw it. But the next morning, I was being driven to school with my brother (why we didn’t take the bus, I don’t remember), and we heard the news on the radio, Mills defeating Australian great Ron Clarke (one of my heroes) and the Tunisian Mohamed Gammoudi. I’ve long considered that the greatest moment in US long distance running, marathons aside.

And now we have Galen Rupp.

As for Mills, watch. Still incredible, 48 years later.

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