One to Watch: New Zealand 1,500m runner Nick Willis
The athlete is more relaxed yet also more motivated at his fourth Olympic Games
New Zealand’s Nick Willis: “In Rio it’s just about getting down to business and trying to make amends for London.” Photograph: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
There is something particularly heroic about the Olympian who keeps coming back for more, although in the event still billed as the blue ribbon of track and field, sometimes it’s harder to stay away.
For Nick Willis from New Zealand there is also further motivation: not since John Walker, who won the 1,500m in Montreal in 1976, have they had a proper medal challenger. This, after all, is also the country that produced the likes of Peter Snell, who won gold in Tokyo in 1964. Willis is now poised to become the first New Zealand athlete to compete in four Olympics.
Some people might say the Olympic 1,500m is no longer the event it once was (although try telling that to Ronnie Delany). It has probably endured something of a fall from grace in recent years. This was not helped by the disqualification of the Beijing 2008 gold medal winner Rashid Ramzi from Bahrain. He was later stripped of that medal for failing a doping test, having made something of a mockery of the event to begin with, such as flagrantly bizarre and unreal race tactics.
Willis finished third in the race but was later upgraded to silver. He has always been outspoken and suitably critical of drug cheats throughout his career, not just after Beijing, but more recently too. The fact that the world record in this event of 3:26.00 was achieved by Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco back in 1998 may or may not be a good sign, and indeed whether or not it can still be considered the blue ribbon event, that traditional old sign of the highest possible quality remains.
Since the birth of his first child, Lachlan, in 2013, he has re-emerged a stronger, more motivated athlete. In 2014, he dipped 0.09 seconds below the magic 3:30-mark, and in a world class Commonwealth Games 1,500m final, won a second successive bronze.
The 1,500m heats get under way in the Olympic Stadium today (2.30pm Irish time), and Willis admits he is already a bit more relaxed about these Games, having been chosen to carry the New Zealand flag in the London 2012 opening ceremony.
“Being the flag-bearer there was a lot of focus on that [London],” he says,’’ “and I was still trying to figure my way at the first couple of Games. So in Rio it’s just about getting down to business and trying to make amends for what I thought was a disappointing performance in London.”
He has already showed signs of his 2008 form, finally enjoying some success at the World Indoor Championships in Oregon, earlier this year, where he won the bronze medal.
New Zealand is also often compared to Ireland in Olympic terms, given similar populations and sporting interest, although sadly there’s no Irish men’s interest in the event in Rio. So he’s worth following.
“At the recent World Indoor Championships, many of the Americans were supporting Nick over their own. That’s the kind of impact he’s made.”
Still, the gold medal favourite remains reigning world champion Asbel Kiprop from Kenya, who was promoted to gold back in 2008. Kiprop looked unbeatable all season, until the Monaco Diamond League, when he finished sixth in a race won by compatriot Ronald Kwemoi, also a potential medallist in Rio
It’s a rare thing for a non-African to win a medal in the 1,500m, but Willis is among them. American Matt Centrowitz is another exception and he is also back again hoping to break that dominance.