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.
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 right).
Then at the Olympics in LA itself he ran a remarkable series of races with 1:45.66 in his heat, 1:44.84 in the second round, 1:43.84 in his semi and 1:43.00 in the final – all in successive days.
Three years earlier an 18-year-old Cruz had finished well behind Coe as the Briton destroyed the field to win the IAAF World Cup 800m in Rome. But now, in LA and aged 21, he was always in control and surged clear of Coe and runner-up Earl Jones (pictured below on the podium) and the rest of the field in the home straight to win with ease.
“We’re too old to be playing with fire,” the runner-up Coe famously told Ovett.
However while Coe went on to successfully defend his 1500m title, Cruz withdrew from the metric mile with a cold.
Back in Europe a few days later, though, Cruz scorched to some great end-of-season victories with 2:14.09 for 1000m in Nice, 1:42.34 for 800m in Zurich, 1:42.41 in Brussels and then 1:44.77 in Cologne.
Such was his status back home now, in Sao Paulo an abandoned baby was left on someone’s doorstep and it was named Joaquim Cruz.
Cruz was never quite the same after his impeccable 1984 season. In early 1985 he was humbled in an early season 1500m showdown in Nice where Cram narrowly held off Aouita in a world record of 3:29.67 as Cruz lost contact approaching the bell and faded to seventh in 3:37.10.
At his specialist distance, though, he still ran brilliantly by beating Tom McKean at Crystal Palace, whereas he also enjoyed victories in 1:42.49 in Koblenz, 1:42.54 in Cologne and 1:42.98 in Berlin, plus a narrow defeat to an in-form Cram in 1:43.23 in Zurich.
The 1986 season was lost through injury and with his career seemingly on the slide the Brazilian whipped himself into great shape again for a defence of his Olympic title in Seoul in 1988 and managed to put up a gallant fight that nearly resulted in gold.
On the eve of the Games in August he ran a 1500m PB of 3:34.63 to win in Hengelo and finished a close runner-up to Aouita in Cologne over 800m in 1:44.27.
Ultimately the title in Seoul went to surprise package Paul Ereng (below, left) as the Kenyan burst past Cruz in the closing metres to claim victory as the Brazilian ran 1:43.90 ahead of Aouita, Elliott, Johnny Gray and fellow Brazilian Jose-Luis Barbosa.
Cruz carried on racing until 1997 but was only eighth in his 1500m heat at the 1996 Olympics and, in recent years, he has been based in San Diego as a coach primarily for the United States Paralympics programme where he has continued to inspire modern-day athletes in addition to older ex-athletes and fans who remember him as one of the most graceful and powerful 800m runners of all time.
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