Athletics News

Joaquim Cruz at 60 – AW

Joaquim Cruz at 60 - AW

Olympic 800m champion in 1984 turns 60 this weekend and we look back on the career of one of the all-time greats

Joaquim Cruz is best known for beating Seb Coe to the 1984 Olympic 800m title in Los Angeles. For many in South America there was also a decent argument to describe him as the world record-holder too.

Coe ran 1:41.73 in Florence in 1981 at an event where the photo-finish equipment malfunctioned. The Briton’s time was calculated from three photo-cells positioned at three different heights at the finish and officials hand-timed his run at 1:41.6, 1:41.6 and 1:41.7.

The world record stood until 1997, when Wilson Kipketer broke the mark. But in Cologne in 1984 – just 20 days after his Olympic victory – Cruz ran 1:41.77 to miss Coe’s mildly controversial mark by a mere four hundredths of a second.

That statistical story is one of many embedded into the folklore of middle-distance running in the 1980s. It was a golden period, largely dominated by Coe and fellow Englishmen Steve Ovett, Steve Cram and Peter Elliott, but there were a number of athletes from around the world who were just as good on their day. Most notably, for example, Said Aouita of Morocco and, of course, Cruz.

Humble beginnings

Cruz turns 60 this week (March 12) but the athlete (whose first name is pronounced Joe-Akeem not Wah-keem incidentally) was born in 1963 in a favela in Taguatinga near Brasilia. To begin with he was a talented basketball player and his athletics talent was spotted when playing that game by a coach called Luiz de Oliviera.

Initially Cruz was a reluctant runner who preferred basketball, but he had stacks of natural running ability. He clocked a world junior 800m record of 1:44.3 in Rio in 1981 and moved to Eugene, Oregon, to train.

Injuries held him up a little and it was discovered his right leg was slightly shorter than the left, which needed an orthotic to fix. But in 1983, aged just 21, he made his mark at the World Championships in Helsinki by finishing third behind winner Willi Wulbeck of West Germany.

With an aggressive front running style that would become his trademark, he battled for the lead with Elliott at a furious pace before running out of steam as the more experienced Wülbeck charged through for gold.

Glory in Los Angeles

One year later Cruz was virtually invincible over two laps. He began the summer by winning the NCAA 800m and 1500m titles, plus a 3:53.00 mile in his debut at the distance at the Pepsi Invitational (pictured…

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