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
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
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.
"5" />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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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)
Melbourne 1956 – 3 German runners in the preliminaries
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
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
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 -
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
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
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
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
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
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
Moscow – 1980 – Andreas Busse and Detlef Wagenknecht in
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
"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
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
The future does not look easy, however.
Let us look forward to the glorious unexpectedness of Olympic
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):