Taoufik Makhloufi goes from evicted to gold medal in 1,500 meters

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Broadneck High School graduate Matthew Centrowitz, who finished fourth in the men’s 1,500 meters with a time of 3:35.17, missed a bronze medal by four-tenths of a second. It was actually four-hundredths of a second. This version has been corrected.

August 7, 2012

No one was questioning Taoufik Makhloufi’s effort this time.

Just one day earlier, the Algerian middle-distance runner had been evicted from the Summer Games, told by organizers that he wasn’t trying hard enough. His country protested, he was allowed to stay, and Tuesday night, he made sure the London Olympics wouldn’t soon forget that Makhloufi's effort was golden in just about every way.

Americans won four track and field medals Tuesday at Olympic Stadium, but Makhloufi’s memorable run in the men’s 1,500 flipped one of these Summer Games’ most prominent story lines on its head. Makhloufi had been ousted just a week after eight badminton players were expelled for not giving full effort, and in less than 36 hours time, he went from having an eviction notice to a gold medal.

“I think this race and the fact that I won this race gives new hope to the Algerian people,” Makhloufi said later, “especially in the field of athletics.”

Makhloufi’s victory capped a night in which four U.S. athletes paraded the stars and stripes around the stadium. Leo Manzano finished second to Makhloufi in the men’s 1,500, Erik Kynard won silver in the high jump and the Americans took both silver and bronze in an exciting women’s 100 meter hurdles race.

Australian hurdler Sally Pearson set an Olympic record, winning gold with a time of 12.35 seconds. The U.S. athletes claimed the race’s next three positions. Dawn Harper was just two-hundredths of a second away from successfully defending her Olympic title from Beijing, finishing in 12.37 and settling for silver only after the times flashed on the stadium scoreboard.

“I was like: ‘Did I sneak? Did I just sneak and get past her?’” Harper said. “I looked up, and I actually realized I didn’t win when I saw [Pearson] fall to the ground. I was like: ‘Dang it, she’s happy. She just won.’ ”

Kellie Wells took bronze, crossing the finish line in a personal-best 12.48, and Lolo Jones was fourth, finishing in 12.58, her best time of the season.

“Obviously, I’m crushed,” Jones said.

In the months leading up to the Games, Jones had appeared on talk shows and magazine covers, serving as one of the most visible U.S. Olympians headed to London. Though the popular hurdler finished one-tenth of a second away from a medal Tuesday, it was still better than the 2008 Games, when Jones hit the 10th hurdle and crashed after leading the entire race.

“At least I can lift my head up a little bit higher, and when I tell my kids about when their mom ran at the Olympics, it won’t be a bittersweet memory,” she said.

Following the women’s hurdles, the men walked onto the track for the 1,500, the night’s final event. Makhloufi was just happy to be among them.

On Monday, he was forced to compete in an 800 qualifying race because his country’s Olympic committee failed to withdraw his name. Already qualified for the 1,500, Makhloufi ran barely 150 meters of the two-lap race, apparently because a pre-existing knee injury flared up.

Because he walked off the track before the finish, he was booted from the Games, and the International Association of Athletics Federations issued a statement that said “the referee considered that he had not provided a bona fide effort and decided to exclude him from participation in all further events in the competition.”

But Makhloufi and his team were able to convince Olympic organizers he was suffering from a legitimate knee injury that prompted him to bow out. After he visited with a doctor, Makhloufi was reinstated later in the day.

Despite the whirlwind of activity, Makloufi said he remained level-headed. “This did not have a huge effect on my morale,” he said. And apparently that knee injury wasn’t bothering him much when he hit the track Tuesday night. He crushed the field, winning in a time of 3:34.08 a full 0.71 seconds ahead of Manzano.

“Any person and every person who wins a race or a competition forgets about his injuries or his pains,” Makhloufi said, “and I forgot about mine.”

Said Manzano, who was separated from gold by one man: “Whether he’s in or out, I’ve still got to race. Of course, if he’s not running, fine. It’s a lot better for everybody else. But if he’s running, not running, I can’t do anything about that.

One of the sport’s most strategic events, Tuesday’s race could’ve unfolded a hundred different ways. For Matthew Centrowitz, a 22-year old runner from Broadneck High, it’s impossible to ignore the obvious one: If the IAAF didn’t reinstate Makhloufi, the race’s winner, one fewer runner would’ve crossed the finish line ahead of Centrowitz, whose 3:35.17 finish was good enough for fourth place, four-hundredths of a second away from a medal.

“You look at it now,” Centrowitz said, “it’s like, one more spot and I would’ve been a medalist. . . . I wasn’t looking at it like that. Whoever’s in the field, I have to compete with.”

Centrowitz won bronze at last year’s world championships and looks to be a threat in the 1,500 for years to come. That was hardly any consolation, though, Tuesday.

“It doesn’t matter if I’m 18 or whatever . . . You want to take advantage of every opportunity,” Centrowitz said.

Also Tuesday night, Sanya Richards-Ross, who won gold in the women’s 400 meters on Sunday, posted the fastest qualifying time in 200 meter semifinals. She won the third and final semifinal heat in 22.30 seconds, just ahead of Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce (22.34), the two-time champion in the 100 meters. All three Americans advanced to Wednesday’s final, including Allyson Felix (22.31), the two-time Olympic silver medallist in the event, and Carmelita Jeter (22.39), who won silver in the 100 meter last Saturday.

“It’s going to be tough, but tomorrow I hope to be tougher,” Richards-Ross said.

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