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Faster, Higher, Stronger: The history of the 1500m

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Francis Welch Francis Welch | 09:30 UK time, Tuesday, 10 July 2012

As a schoolchild I was one of millions who gathered around television sets to watch Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram battle each other to win the 1500m in two epic Olympic finals: Moscow in 1980 and LA in 1984.

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Sebastian Coe makes Olympic history at the 1984 Games

Thirty years ago Brits were the undisputed kings of middle distance running, so I was really excited when I was asked to produce a documentary about the history of this great race for the new BBC Two series Faster, Higher, Stronger.

Kenyan athletics legend Kipchoge Keino is so right when he says in the film that the 1500m is about more than just a test of supreme fitness.

Over three and three quarter laps of the track, this race requires the most demanding combination of talents - the stamina of a marathon runner, the explosive pace of a sprinter, the mentality to win and the tactical acumen to outwit your opponents.

That's why the 'metric mile' has been described as the Blue Riband event since the modern Games began in 1896.

Although the 1500m provided British athletics with a golden era, what surprised me while making this film was that for over 80 years it had attracted the most innovative and exceptional runners from unexpected corners of the world.

Inspired by the natural landscapes in which they trained, a small number of elite champions from different historical eras had transformed this extraordinary race.

I wanted this story to be told by the people who made it so my first challenge was to track down these athletes.

And what I quickly found was that I was making a film not about racing around a track but about the varied and rugged terrains these great Olympians pounded to plot their victories.

Olympic 1500m winner Paavo Nurmi

In the lake district of Finland I found 1972 Olympic champion Pekka Vasala, who told me about the first great 1500m runner, a Finnish athlete named Paavo Nurmi.

He devised the first systematic training regime in the 1920s. It was Nurmi who paved the way for today's champions by 'interval training' in the hills and forests that surrounded him.

In order to bring Nurmi's story to life I set about planning a reconstruction of his training methods.

Pekka introduced me to a young Finnish athlete Riku Marttinen (who plans to compete in the 2016 Olympics) and I sourced some period clothes in Helsinki.

I then showed Marttinen Nurmi's distinctive running style from old film reels and obtained an authentic 1920s stopwatch for him to carry, just as Nurmi had done in order to improve his running times.

I also brought my own running kit and attached a camera to my head to film Nurmi's perspective as he ran through the woods.

The shocking part of filming for me was in Kenya when I ran with the headcam at high altitude. Although I thought I was relatively fit it felt like my heart would explode.

The cameraman (who was filming from a jeep) found it very funny when a group of local schoolchildren first ran after me and then easily overtook me!

You'll see in the film Kipchoge Keino (who won Gold at the 1968 Olympics) discuss how training at high altitude improves endurance.

His hometown of Eldoret in the Rift Valley is situated over 7,000ft above sea level and has produced more Olympic champions than any other place in the world.

After filming sportspeople in Finland, Kenya, Morocco, Australia and the USA I came back to the UK.

Director Francis Welch with Seb Coe

Producer/director Francis Welch with Sebastian Coe

Here I got to speak to Sebastian Coe, chairman of the London 2012 Organising Committee (Locog) and two-time Olympic champion.

We talked about the far-flung places I had visited and he explained how the environment around his hometown of Sheffield had inspired him.

It was in the Peak District that he followed an arduous regime of speed endurance under the guidance of his father and coach Peter Coe.

As we talked I was struck by his in-depth knowledge about the tradition of this race.

He explained how each of the great champions I had filmed with had, in their own unique way, raised the level of performance through history and why he feels that come the London Olympics this summer the 1500m will again be the event to watch.

Francis Welch is the producer and director of Faster, Higher, Stronger.

Faster, Higher, Stronger starts on Monday, 9 July at 7pm on BBC Two and BBC HD. For further programme times, please see the episode guide.

Roger Mosey, the BBC's director of London 2012, has written about Olympics programmes on his blog: BBC's sport programmes move to the fore.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.


  • Comment number 1.

    I've been fascinated by the 1500m since seeing the 1984 Olympic final as a young(ish!) child and thought the programme last night was excellent, but for what was to me a major omission.

    Why was there no mention of the achievements of notable women competitors in this event?

    I know that early results in 1500m running for women are suspect due to well-known issues with doping in eastern Europe, but the achievements and experiences of more recent winners were surely worthy of inclusion? Hassiba Boulmerka for example was not only a great runner but overcame considerable prejudice (which forced her to train outside her native Algeria). Similarly why wasn't Nancy Lagat mentioned amongst the notable Kenyans in this event? And why no mention of Kelly Holmes - the programme acted as if Peter Elliott was the last British Olympic medallist in this event.

  • Comment number 2.

    Loved Part 3. Can someone tell me who did the music in the Herb Elliot sequence? I'd love to be able to get it.

    Regards on a wonderful programme.

    Fraser Currie

  • Comment number 3.

    Is track and field a male only sport of a sudden? The lack of even the slightest mention of a female athlete in the 100m or 1500m programmes was bewildering.

  • Comment number 4.

    Thoroughly enjoyed these programmes but was so disappointed that so few women athletes were mentioned. Explain yourselves please BBC

  • Comment number 5.

    I was disappointed in the program as it failed to mention, even through they interviewed him, that Peter Snell had won the 800metres in Rome 1960 and won the 800 metres/ 1500metres double in Tokyo in 1964.
    It also failed to mention the wins of Jack Lovelock in Berlin 1936 and John Walker in Montreal 1976, as well the winners of 1928,1932,1948,1952,1956 Olympic 1500metres.
    It can hardly be called a "History of the 1500metres"
    Do some more research!

  • Comment number 6.

    Hello all,

    Francis Welch has asked me to pass on that he's only to happy to come back and respond to your comments here next week when he is back from filming.

    Meanwhile, mac9976 - some of the music for Faster, Higher, Stronger was specially composed by the Bower Brothers and isn't commercially available. The rest of the music that was played in the 1500m programme is now listed on the episode page.


  • Comment number 7.

    Thanks to everyone for their comments, apologies for the delayed reply, I’ve just returned from filming.

    Elle43, RPowell and missleeleepops, I’d like to respond to your question about why we didn’t feature women in the 1500m film. In making Faster Higher Stronger we wanted to get the right balance of men and women. We told the story of four Olympic events (100m, Gymnastics, 1500m and Swimming) and how exceptional athletes in each of these arenas had set the very highest standard. In the Gymnastics film the story was clearly defined by four remarkable women – – Larissa Latynina, Vera Casavalska, Olga Korbut and Nadia Commenci (who performed the first perfect ten). And the swimming film also featured the stories of women who had advanced the sport including the great freestyler Dawn Fraser.

    In the 1500m it was clear that this event – dubbed the Blue Riband of the Olympics – was dominated by male athletes who have always run considerably faster. There are fantastic women runners over this distance; Kelly Holmes performed remarkably winning Gold in the 800m and 1500m in the Athens Games. But her personal best of 3.57.90 is over half a minute slower than Hicham El Guerrouj’s best time of 3.26.00. No one in the athletics world would compare male and female athletes and we felt the same making this film. In one sixty minute documentary it would be unfair to compare men and women in this key track event.

    Over a single hour I felt it was important that the documentary wasn’t too crowded with a list of all the athletes who had won the Olympic 1500m – this would be a “list show”. Instead we chose to focus on six runners who over eighty years had defined this race. And so htripleu (# 5), this meant that we could tell stories many people had never heard of; reveal their personal journeys, the secrets of their training regimes and the new ideas of their coaches. The idea of the film was that particular environments around the world had inspired these champions, so it was important we could take the viewer to these locations – from the Rift Valley in Kenya to the Waitakere Ranges in New Zealand. We carefully researched all the winners of the Olympic 1500m since the Modern Games began in 1896 and I also spoke to leading coaches and athletes, such as Steve Cram, to canvas opinion, before we settled on six outstanding runners; Paavo Nurmi, Herb Elliott, Peter Snell, Kipchoge Keino, Sebastian Coe and Hicham El Guerrouj. Each brought something%


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