There have been many great 800m runners in history but no one runner towers over all others making it quite a difficult choice as to who is the greatest ever. The list here is my coice of the Top Ten of all-time with their achievements outlined. I then give my reasoning for my decisions on the top ten.
1. David Rudisha (Kenya) – Olympic champion 2012 and 2016, World champion 2011 and 2015, African Champion 2008 and 2010, Commonwealth Games silver in 2014. 3 World Records (two in 2010 and the current record of 1:40.91 set at the 2012 Olympics). Three times Track and Field News world athlete of the year. Year’s fastest 800m four times.
2. Wilson Kipketer (Denmark) – world champion in 1995,1997 and 1999. European Champion 2002, Olympic Games 2nd in 2000 and 3rd in 2004. World Indoor Champion in 1997 where he set a world indoor record. Equalled the world record and then broke the world record twice in 1997. Five times fastest in the world for the year.
3. Peter Snell (New Zealand) – Olympic champion in 1960 and 1964, Commonwealth champion in 1962. World record holder from 1962 to 1973.
4. Mal Whitfield (USA) – Olympic champion in 1948 and 1952, PanAmerican Champion 1951
5. Sebastian Coe (Great Britain) – European champion 1985, Olympic silver in 1980 and 1984. World records in 1979 and 1981.
The top two places had been closely contested until Rudisha retained his Olympic title. This was enough to give him the edge over Kipketer. Rudisha has now been the best 800m runner in the world in six years taking championship and competition results into account. Kipketer was the dominant runner of the late 1990s but was unfortunate in not having the chance to win Olympic gold when at his peak because Kenya didn’t clear him to run for his adopted nation Denmark. His world record stood for fifteen years and it is a strange quirk of the event that records have tended to stay for a long time with one holder who sometimes breaks their own record.
The top two are clear of the rest but the next three are closely matched with each having different factors to recommend them. Whitfield and Snell were both Olympic champions at 800m twice. Whitfield was an outstanding competitor who didn’t really record fast times to the same extent as Snell and Coe but was very hard to beat over a five year period. Snell only had a four year reign at the top but in that time not only won championships but set a long standing record. Coe was at or near the top of 800m running for longer than the other two and held the world record for 18 years. However, he never won a world or Olympic gold medal and championships count for more than records to me.
There is then another gap to the next two choices.
6. Mel Sheppard (USA) – Olympic champion in 1908 (setting a world record) and silver in 1912.
7. Douglas Lowe (Great Britain) – Olympic champion in 1924, setting a European record, and in 1928 where he set an Olympic record.
Sheppard was the dominant runner of his era and also won the American title five times. He was also the world’s fastest 800m runner in five years between 1906 and 1911. Lowe was a fine championship runner who wasn’t the fastest runner in the world in either of his two Olympic years although he was in 1925.
The final three spaces could easily go to a number of runners but my choices are:
8. Alberto Juantorena (Cuba) – Olympic champion in 1976 setting a world record. In 1977 he set another world record and won the World Cup. At the World Student Games that year he broke his own world record.
9. Roger Moens (Belgium) – silver medallist in the 1960 Olympics. Set a world record in 1955 which lasted for seven years. He didn’t have a great championship record but was ranked in the top few runners at the event over a period of seven years.
10. Rudolf Harbig (Germany) – European Champion in 1938. Set a world record in 1939 which stood for sixteen years.
I chose Juantorena because although he had a very short reign at the top of 800m running he set two world records and won an Olympic gold. Moens is chosen for his longevity at the top level. Harbig won a title and produced one of the greatest ever runs at 800m when taking nearly two seconds off the previous mark. His career was halted by the Second World War where he was killed in action. He achieved enough in his short 800m career, especially that world record, to take the tenth place in my rankings. I considered others such as Bill Crothers, Yevgeniy Arzhanov, Rick Wohlhuter and Joachim Cruz for these final spots and it really was a difficult decision.