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The Historic Series on Olympic Running (II): Men’s 1500m Race

Two silver and five bronze medals for Germany since the beginning of the Olympic Games


In just about 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 1500m 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.

The 1500m race, the top discipline for the middle distance runners, has a long tradition and has always been one of the athletics highlights on the last day of the Olympic Games, the World Championships, and the European Championships. The 1500m has been part of the Olympic programme since Athens 1896. The most successful team in the 1500m has been England, “cleaning up” with the most gold, silver, and bronze medals, including five gold medallist champions—demonstrating the strength of the British middle distance runners for 90 years, from Charles Bennett in 1900 to Sebastian Coe in 1984.

The German middle distance runners have participated in every finals since 1896 (Karl Galle), but as excellent as some individuals may have been they have always been missing the small portion of luck necessary to win gold.

Klaus Richtzenhain and Jürgen Straub
are the most successful German 1500m runners in the history of the Olympic Games. But unlike the women’s 800m runners who brought home 3 gold medals, the Olympic gold for the men still remains unachieved. In 1956, Klaus Richtzenhain earned silver in Melbourne and in 1980 Jürgen Straub managed to sensationally fight out the silver medal between the British running legends Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett in Moscow.

A further five bronze medals adorn the German middle distance runners; however, the last medal (earned by Jens-Peter Herold in Seoul in 1988) was won a long time ago.

Overview of the distribution of medals of the most successful nations in the 1500m race:

- Gold/ 2 Silver/ 5 Bronze/ 4x 4th place/ 1x 5th place/ 1x 6th place/ 2x 7th place / 1x 9th place

GBR: 5 G/ 7 S/ 2 B
USA: 3 G/ 5 S/ 5 B
FIN: 3 G/ 1 S/ -
KEN: 3 G/ 1 S/ 2 B
NZL: 3 G/ -S/ 2 B
AUS: 2 G/ - S/ 1 B
SWE 1 G/ 1 S/ 1 B
ESP: 1G / 1 S/ 1 B
ITA: 1G / - S/ 1 B
LUX: 1 G
IRL: 1 G
ALG: 1 G
FRA: - G/ 3 S/ 1 B
MAR: - G/ 2 S/ - B

A further 7 nations have won silver and bronze medals.

Athens 1896 – “What is the little guy doing here?”

Carl Galle, who was 1.54m tall, wrote in his memoirs that when he took to the start in the 1500m finals in Athens his competitors looked at him in bewilderment as if to say: “What is the little guy doing here?” He came from the Berlin Football Club Germania 88 and played cricket, tennis, and ran. He was too small for the German military, but was quick and had endurance, and he won the German and Continental Championships in the mile (1609.35 m).

Ekkehard zur Megede wrote in his “The History of Olympic Track and Field”: There were only eight participants who did not have to run any intermediate races. Right after the starting shot the Frenchman Lermusiaux took off in the fastest pace, the others wildly took up the chase behind him.

When the final lap was rung in, he slowed down significantly, allowing the Australian Flack and the American Blake to pass him, something that Galle was not able to do.

Finals (April 7, 1896):

1. Edwin Flack (Australia) 4:33,2 (OR)
2. Arthur Blake (USA) 4:34,0*
3. Albin Lermusiaux (France) 4:36,0*
4. Carl Galle (Germany) 4:39,0*
5. Agelos Phetsis (Greece)
6. Demetrius Golemis (Greece)

* estimated, as only one time was kept

The names of the other two participants were unfortunately not found in this research.

Paris 1900 – Werkmüller followed behind

The only German participant, Werkmüller, was behind from the start and came in 9th and last.

Finals (July 15, 1900)
9. Werkmüller (Germany)

1. Charles Bennett (GBR) 4:06,2 (WR)
2. Henry Deloge (FRA) 4:06,6*
3. John Bray (USA) 4:07,2*

* estimated times

St. Louis 1904 - Johannes Runge came in 5th in both the 800m and 1500m

Megede wrote that Johannes Runge (Braunschweig) demonstrated his readiness to compete in St. Louis at the “Deutschen Sichtkämpfen“ on July 24, 1904 in Hanover.He broke two records and won three events. He made the records in the 400m in 53.0 and the 800m in 1:59.4, won the long jump with 6.23 m and came in second in the triple jump with 12.44m.

In St. Louis he competed in the 800m race and came in 5th in 1:57,1 *.

He tried his luck for a second time in the 1500m race, 48 hours after the 800m race. He later said that even at his best he could not have beaten the gold medallist, who ran a new world record.

Finals (September 3, 1904)

5. Johannes Runge – no time

1. James Lightbody (USA) 4:05,4 (WR)
2. Frank Verner (USA) 4:06,8*
3. L.E.Hearn (USA)
4. D.C.Munson (USA)

* estimated time

Amsterdam 1928 – Three Germans in the Finals

Among the twelve participants who reached the finals, three were middle distance runners, Herbert Böcher, Hans Wichmann and Helmut Krause. They even took the lead at the start.

After one lap, Purje (FIN) moved ahead, while Ladoumègue (FRA) waited until the final bell and began his final sprint. Larva (FIN) kept on his heels and then passed him easily, improving Nurmi’s Olympic record by 4 tenths of a second to 3:53.2.

Megede wrote: “Purje barely secured the bronze medal against a desperately fighting Hans Wichmann, who nonetheless was able to put two distinguished world-class athletes behind him, Cyril Ellis of England and Paul Martin of Switzerland. Helmut Krause, who still made the 4-minute-mark, came in 7th, and Herbert Böcher gave up.

Finals (August 2, 1928)
4. Hans Wichmann 3:56.8
7. Helmut Krause 3:59.0
Herbert Böcher did not finish.

1. Harri Larva (FIN) 3:53.2 (OR)
2. Jules Ladoumègue (FRA) 3:53.8
3. Eino Purje (FIN) 3 :54.4.

Helsinki 1952 – World Record Holder Werner Lueg came in 3rd – Lamers 6th

“The English set their sights on Roger Bannister, the Germans on Werner Lueg, the Czechs on Stanislaw Jungwirth, and the Swedes on Olle Aberg,” wrote Megede about the finals in Helsinki.

The Germans had experienced a renaissance of middle distance racing in 1951. The good news, names and times kept coming in the Olympic year. At the German Championships in the Berlin Olympic Stadium on June 29th, the spectators jumped from their seats when Werner Lueg (Gevelsberg) matched the world record held by Swedes Hägg and Strand (3:43.0). Günther Dohrow (SCC Berlin) began at an outstanding pace to try to shake off Lueg (56.6 / 1:58.1 and 1000m in 2:31.0) – but it was not enough. Lueg passed him in the sprint, giving away the world record, however, by slowing down just before the finish. Dohrow ran 3:44.8, Lamers 3:47.4.

In Helsinki, Dohrow injured his heel during practice on Lueg’s spikes. After lying in bed for two days, he was eliminated in the intermediates.

Rolf Lamers (Oberhausen) took over the lead in the finals, passed the 400m mark in 57.8 and 800m in 2:01.4 – but that was not fast enough. Lueg took over the lead at the 1000m. Werner Lueg had a 5 metre lead before the final stretch. Suddenly, two runners nobody expected appeared out of the curve: Joseph Barthel (LUX) and Robert McMillen (USA). Werner Lueg noticed them, and looking around became nervous and tensed up. Although he still fought desperately, Barthel won.

Finals (July 26, 1952)
6. Rolf Lamers 3:46.8
Günther Dohrow (intermediate race)

1. Joseph Barthel (LUX) 3:45.2 (OR)
2. Robert McMillen (USA) 3:45.2 (OR)
3. Werner Lueg 3:45.4

Melbourne 1956 – The Favourite Siegfried Herrmann tore a tendon – Richtzenhain with Silver

37 middle distance runners competed for the finals in Melbourne. There were only preliminary races and no intermediate ones like in Helsinki. The experts anticipated Siegfried Herrmann (Erfurt) as the upcoming Olympic champion, but in the third preliminary, 300m before the finish he collapsed into the grass with a torn Achilles tendon. Günther Dohrow (SCC Berlin) was eliminated in the preliminaries in 9th place.

The new hopes were set on Klaus Richtzenhais from Leipzig (b. Nov. 1, 1934 in Berlin, 1.78 m, 63 kg / Trainer Max Syring/Ewald Mertens / SC Turbine Erfurt) – In 1955, Richtzenhain appeared from nowhere into the world elite as a 21-year-old.

In the finals, the first 600m were passed in 1:29.3 (Halberg), 800 m in 2:00.1 (Hewson) and 1200m in 3:01.3 (Hewson). Landy, Richtzenhain, Tabori, Hewson, and Jungwirth tried to decide it for themselves, but no one was paying any attention to the Irishman Delany, who trained in the USA. Phenomenally, he passed them all like a sprinter and won.

Richtzenhain just managed to hold back the famous John Landy and won the silver medal—and thus had an even greater success than the world record man Werner Lueg 4 years previous.
Finals (December 1, 1956):
1. Ronald Delany (IRL) 3:41.2 (OR)
2. Klaus Richtzenhain 3:42.0
3. John Landy (AUS) 3:42.0

Mexico City 1968 – Bodo Tümmler at his best in third – Harald Norpoth fourth

Megede described Keino’s phenomenal race in the finals in Mexico City as “the storming race of Kipchoge Keino“ (KEN). Keino, Jim Ryun, the young wonder runner from the USA, and from Berlin Bodo Tümmler (b. Dec. 8, 1943 in Thorn, Trainer Wolfgang Meller / SCC Berlin), the European Champion in Budapest in 1966, were the favourites. In addition, Tümmler had the excellent coaching of the German National trainer, Paul Schmidt, and in 1965 he had participated in three preparatory races in Mexico, thus giving him experience with the high altitude.

Harald Norpoth (Preußen Münster) had already run (and dropped out of) the 5000m race, yet nonetheless had earned a spot in the finals of the 1500m. Arnd Krüger was eliminated in the intermediates.

Bodo Tümmler had said prior to the games in his own unique way: “I think I can run 3:40 at the Olympic Games“ – and with a time of 3:39.0 and the bronze medal, he fulfilled his prophecy in a race of the giants.

With a fast pace, Keino wanted to break Ryun’s strength for the final sprint. The 400m mark was passed in 56.0 (Jipcho), but by the 800m mark (1:55.3), Keino had already taken over the lead. Tümmler and Norpoth (the 5000m Olympic silver medallist in Tokyo) ran in his wake, while Ryun dawdled almost 20 metres Keino. He passed the 1200m mark in 2:53.4 and increased the pace. Ryun only reached Tümmler and Norpoth on the backstretch, and then came in second. Both Germans demonstrated great tactics. In addition to Bodo Tümmler, Harald Norpoth also had an excellent race, bringing in the thankless, but nonetheless worthy, fourth place.

Finals: October 20, 1968
1. Kipchoge Keino (KEN) 3:34.9 (OR)
2. James Ryun (USA) 3:37.8
3. Bodo Tümmler 3:39.0
4. Harald Norpoth 3:42.5

München 1972 – Wellmann in the Finals

The three medals winners from Mexico were in Munich too: Jim Ryun fell in his preliminary race, Bodo Tümmler, who had health problems, did not make it past the intermediates, and only Keino was in the finals again, coming in second.
It was all over for Klaus-Peter Justus in the intermediates, as well. Paul-Heinz Wellmann, the 20-year-old from Haiger, ran an excellent 3:38.4 in the intermediates, but could not improve on it in the finals and was 7th.

Finals: September 10, 1972
7. Paul-Heinz Wellmann 3:40.1

1. Pekka Vasala (FIN) 3:36.3
2. Kipchoge Keino (KEN) 3:36.8
3. Rod Dixon (NZL) 3:37.5

Montreal 1976 – Wellmann now with the bronze medal

Paul-Heinz Wellmann, Thomas Wessinghage and Karl Fleschen were the three musketeers of the German runners in Montreal. Wessinghage, who came into the race with better times than Wellmann, made it to the intermediates but could not make the finals.

The big favourite was John Walker (NZL), but the Irishman Eamonn Coghlan also had a good chance for a medal. The Belgian Ivo van Damme, who already won silver in the 800m, was also good for a surprise in the 1500m. Wellmann caught the more esteemed Coghlan on the inside lane and won the bronze.

Finals: July 31, 1976
1. John Walker (NZL) 3:39.17
2. Ivo van Damme (BEL) 3:39.27
3. Paul-Heinz Wellmann 3:39.33

Moscow 1980 – Jürgen Straub fought out the Silver medal ahead of Ovett, Busse in 4th

The Games in Moscow set the stage for the big meeting of the middle distance running legends Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe (both GBR). Coe, the world record holder, lost unexpectedly against Ovett in the 800m, and was hoping for his chance in the 1500m. In the finals, the typical tactics of no one wanting to take the lead were practiced. Jürgen Straub (b. Nov. 3, 1953 in Weitersroda – ASK Vorwärts Potsdam / Trainer Bernd Dießner) at least brought a little bit of speed into the race, passing the 400m in 61.6. But no one wanted to move to the front. Straub knew that he only had a chance if he could put to use his ability for a long acceleration. 300m before the finish, Jürgen Straub was still in the lead, but when they approached the final curve, Coe sprinted past Straub. Ovett could not keep up, Coe running the last 100m in 12.1. Jürgen Straub pushed himself to the limit and sensationally kept between the two British running aces. Andreas Busse ran a good 4th place finish.

Finals: August 1, 1980:
1. Sebastian Coe (GBR) 3:38.4
2. Jürgen Straub 3:38.8
3 Steve Ovett (GBR) 3:39.0
4. Andreas Busse 3:40.2

Seoul 1988 - Jens-Peter Herold in third, ahead of Steve Cram

Said Aouita, the 1500m World Record holder, after finishing third in the 800m, only ran in the preliminaries and then decided not to continue. Peter Rono (KEN) was then able to reach an unexpected victory, shocking the anticipated favourites like Steve Cram (GBR). Jens-Peter Herold (b. June 2 ,1965 in Neuruppin, ASK Vorwärts Potsdam/SCC Berlin – from 1992 – Trainer Bernd Dießner) was in good position, only one and a half metres behind, shortly before the finish, but was unable to get past Peter Elliot (GBR).

Finals: October 1, 1988
1. Peter Rono (KEN) 3:35.96
2. Peter Elliot (GBR) 3:36.21
3. Jens-Peter Herold 3:36.24
4. Steve Cram (GBR) 3:36.24

Barcelona 1992 - Herold again in the Olympic Finals

In the Olympic finals, the usual standstill tactics were applied, until Spain’s great hope initiated his total and never-ending sprint in the final curve, leading him to a triumphant victory. The sprinters were victorious. Jens Peter Herold was 6th, ahead of Nourredine Morceli, the favourite and world champion from the previous year. The preliminaries and semi-finals were also hard fought battles, leaving numerous favourites behind.

Semi-finals: Rüdiger Stenzel (TV Wattenscheid) 8. 3:40.23 – Hauke Fuhlbrügge (TSV Erfurt) 11. 3:38.45

Finals: August 8, 1992
6. Jens-Peter Herold 3:41.53

1. Fermin Cacho (ESP) 3:40.12
2. Rachid El-Basir (MAR) 3:40.62
3. Mohamed Sulaiman (QAT) 3:40.69

Atlanta 1996
Michael Gottschalk 11. preliminaries 3:56.46

Sydney 2000
No German 1500m runners!

Unfortunately, the 1500m "Hall of Fame" of middle distance runners ended in 1992 in Barcelona with Jens-Peter Herold. One must also note, though, that the middle distance strongholds Great Britain and the USA were also not present in the last two Olympic finals, while the Spanish runners could still hold their own.

The era of the African running champions had begun — but one should never give up all hope—nice surprises happen again and again in the sport of running.

Horst Milde

Interesting tips and supplementary information on the great Olympic history of the addressed topics may be sent to:

Women’s 800m (Historic Series on Olympic Running I)

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