Walk-off victory: Algerian runner dismissed from Games returns to win men's 1,500 final

·NFL columnist

LONDON – On Monday, Taoufik Makhloufi's knee hurt enough for him to quit in the middle of his 800-meter preliminary heat. One gold medal later in Tuesday's 1,500-meters … wait, what knee?

Booted from the Olympics on Monday for quitting in the 800 – then reinstated hours later via medical review – the Algerian had no problem running to a gold medal in the men's 1,500 meters. Makhloufi edged the United States' Leonel Manzano and Morocco's Abdalaati Iguider for the win, crossing the finish line at 3:34.08 and giving Algeria its fifth gold medal in the country's history.

Algeria's Taoufik Makhloufi reacts after he won the men's 1500m final during the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium August 7, 2012. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Algeria's Taoufik Makhloufi reacts after he won the men's 1500m final during the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium August 7, 2012. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

As for that pesky 800 meters that drove Makhloufi to quit on Monday? He had a simple explanation: A nagging knee injury was too much for him to overcome. Makhloufi said he was actually told by team doctors not to run in the event, but pressed on anyway.

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"I was told that racing and competing might be dangerous for me," Makhloufi said of his knee injury that caused him to quit midway through the race. "I was told that by my doctor. However, I insisted and I wanted to compete."

Undoubtedly, Monday's 800 meters and Tuesday's 1,500 were a significant contrast in Makhloufi's vigor. On Tuesday he ran a strong race from the start, positioning himself near the front of the pack then charging ahead and taking a commanding lead that he never surrendered, ousting the heavily favored Kenyans and holding off Manzano, whose late charge made the race seem far closer than it ever was.

Asked how his allegedly balky knee felt Tuesday, Makhloufi smiled.

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

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It was quite the difference from Monday's bizarre 800-meter heat. Before that race began, Makhloufi appeared in good spirits, smiling and doing some pre-race hyping for cameras despite speculation about how much effort he would put forth after qualifying for the medal round of the 1,500.

From the start of the 800-meter race, Makhloufi appeared to pull back. So much so, a BBC broadcaster couldn't resist taking a jab when Makhloufi nearly stood out of the starting blocks. "Makhloufi almost took a step backwards at the start there," the commentator jabbed.

Makhloufi quickly fell behind the pack in the race, jogged beyond the 200-meter mark, slowed to a walk and then stepped off the track completely. He then cut through the infield, wandered the edge of the track near the final 100 meters of the race, and could be seen clapping for the remaining runners as they neared the finish line. After the last runner passed Makhloufi – who was still clapping – on the final straightaway, the Algerian crossed the track and retreated into the bowels of the stadium.

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That prompted a race official to dismiss Makhloufi from the Games for not giving enough effort, and appeared to knock him out of his 1,500-meter final. Eight badminton players were kicked out of the Games last week for trying to lose to their matches to set up better matchups in the next round of the tournament.

Olympic officials, however, gave Makhloufi an out: If he could get a doctor to sign off on an injury issue, he would be cleared for pulling out of the 800 meters in the middle of the race. A few hours later, Makhloufi and the Algerian team had the medical review they needed, and the decision was reversed. He was reinstated to the Games.

"I knew that I had two choices," Makhloufi said. "Either I was going to be allowed to compete or I was not going to be allowed to compete. I tried not to think about it. I tried to remain calm."

Despite the in-and-out turnaround in one day, Makhloufi's recovery drew no criticism from his competitors.

"At the end of the day, I was like, 'Whether he's in or out, I've still got to race,' " Manzano said. "Of course, if he's not running, fine. It's a lot better for everybody else. But if he's running [or] not running, I can't do anything about that. It doesn't matter."

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Makhloufi's eligibility did matter in Algeria, where winning a gold medal is one of the rarer accomplishments in the country's history. Makhloufi's 1,500 finish delivered the lone medal awarded to Algeria at these Games.

"I am happy to have won this race and I believe Algerians are happy," he said, later noting that he has been training in Europe for the last seven months and hasn't seen his family during that time. "I think this race, and the fact that I won this race, gives new hope to the Algerian people. Especially in athletics."

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