RIO DE JANEIRO: The Baka twins from Algeria are basking in Paralympic glory after one set a record in the 1,500 meters and both managed to run faster than the winner of the Olympics last month.
The 22-year-olds’ achievement in the T13 category for the visually impaired has renewed discussion over the future of the Paralympics, where boundaries are gradually blurring between the top performers and their able-bodied counterparts in the Olympics.
Abdellatif Baka won the 1,500 meters with a time of 3:48.29, a new record for the Paralympics.
Modestly, he told AFP that the only secret to his success was “training.”
The biggest buzz after the race on Sunday was that not only the winning time, but the times of all top four runners were ahead of US Olympic gold medalist Matthew Centrowitz, who recorded 3:50.00 in his win at the Rio Olympics in August. Fourth in the Paralympic race was Abdellatif’s brother, with a time of 3:49.84.
With much talk about Paralympians knocking on the door of the Olympics, this seemed to be a momentous result.
The reality is a lot more sober.
While Baka’s thrilling race was an all time best in the Paralympics, Centrowitz’s gold was one of the all time slowest in the Olympics.
The 1,500 meters is that kind of race, with runners winning partly through tactics within the group, partly by sheer speed.
And in Centrowitz’s case, tactics were far more important than running quickly. If he’d needed to run faster, there seems little doubt that he could have — Centrowitz’s personal best is 3:30.40.
Running with able-bodied
Abdellatif Baka calls his much talked about victory “a surprise.”
He’d been looking for a podium place, but hardly a record. “I gave everything I had in the last 300 meters. It was a very tactical course and I’m proud of having succeeded.”
Abdellatif and Fouad have both had limited eyesight since birth, but began athletics at nine in their home town of Setif, 186 miles (300 kilometers) from the Algerian capital Alger. Abdellatif already has won a gold in the 800m in London four years ago, while Fouad is making his debut.
“The presence of one reassures the other. They complement each other well,” said their trainer Abderahmane Brahmi. “For this race, they had a strategy for one of them to get the victory. Fouad still lacks experience but he only just missed out on making the podium.”
The twins can see no more than about 10 feet (three meters), but “it’s not really a handicap, because we were born like that and we’re used to it,” Fouad said.
Back in Algeria, the duo frequently train and compete with able-bodied runners.
“Thanks to these mixed competitions they fight to shave tenths of seconds off, they think about tactics,” said Brahmi, who will be with them when they run in the 400m on Saturday.
Brahmi admits to being “tough and authoritarian,” but he couldn’t hide his tears on Sunday.
Buoyed by his success in Rio, Abdellatif is hoping that he can even qualify for the Olympics.
“It’s not impossible for me to run with the able-bodied. I train hard for that, I’m serious. If God wills it, I’ll manage one day,” he said.
The coach says his job so far is to prepare for the Tokyo Paralympics in 2020, but even so “every time the standard rises. Everyone is trying to push back the limits.”
Craig Spence, the International Paralympic Committee spokesman, says the results of the 1,500 at least raise questions.
“I know yesterday when we announced it a lot of people just expected either it was wheelchair races or blade runners, but then when they saw it was visually impaired athletes I think they were pretty surprised and I think it shows to the world we are now a high-performance sport,” he said.
“I think maybe the stereotype previously was that Paralympics is second-rate sport, not as good as the Olympics, and I think this sends out a very loud and clear message.”
Next to test the established order will be German long jumper Markus Rehm on Saturday. The amputee, who uses a running blade, is looking to top his personal best of 8.40m which itself is better than the 8.38m jumped by the United States’ Jeff Henderson, when he won gold at the Rio Olympics.