If numbers never lie, then Abdellatif Baka is truly the fastest 1,500-meter runner at the 2016 Olympics.
Baka, a partially blind runner from Algeria, ran a 3:48.29 at the Rio Paralympic Games on Monday, not only setting a world record in his Paralympic division but also besting the gold-medal-winning run of 3:50.00 by American Olympic gold medalist Matthew Centrowitz.
Even more amazing: Three more of Baka’s competitors at the T13 division of the Paralympic Games ran faster than Centrowitz’s gold-medal-winning time. Tamiru Demisse of Ethiopia ran 3:48.49 for the silver medal, while Henry Kirwa of Kenya won bronze with 49.59. Baka’s brother, Fouad, also edged Centrowitz’s time with a 3:49.84, good enough for fourth.
The Baka brothers, Demisse, and Kirwa compete in what the Paralympics officially call the “T13” division of track and field, meaning they are somewhat sighted but still considered visually impaired: with a visual ability ranging from 2/60 to 6/60, competitors can make out shapes while wearing special glasses, but that’s about it. (Track and field athletes with more severe visual impairment are classified as either T12 or T11; athletes in T11 are blindfolded and run with guides.)
Abdellatif Baka broke the existing T13 record 3:56.03 run by New Zealand’s Tim Prendergast at the Athens Paralympics in 2004.
“It wasn’t easy to get this gold medal,” he told the UK’s Independent. “I’ve been working one or two years non-stop and it’s been very, very hard for me.”
To be fair, the gold medal race at the Rio Olympics was comparatively slow. Centrowitz ran a cagey, tactical race en route to the first 1500m gold for the United States in nearly a century, but his 3:50.00 was a full 12 seconds slower than USA Track & Field’s ‘A’ standard of 3:38.00, nearly 16 seconds slower than the 3:34.09 he ran at the U.S. Olympic trials. Several of the time trial races, when athletes had to secure faster times to qualify for their national teams’ Olympic standards, produced faster times than the Olympic final. So even though Centrowitz won gold with a 3:50, he and the other finalists could clearly have run much faster.
Even so, the race is the race, and the times are the times. We’ll put it this way: When the medals were on the line, Baka’s record-breaking run was the fastest 1,500 run in Rio this year.