Kevin Sullivan stood at the line and took it all in.
It was the Canadian’s first Olympic games, and it was electric. 110,000 people filled Stadium Australia on the night of Sept. 29, 2000. They were anxiously waiting to see one of the deepest fields in Olympic history try to capture glory for themselves and their country.
“It’s like you’re in Michigan Stadium for a track and field meet,” Sullivan, now the track and field coach for the Wolverines, said. “It’s not something you see every weekend. So from that perspective, it’s a little bit of an eye opening experience.”
On your mark.
Sullivan hunched over, anticipating the sound of the gun that would send him and 11 other men into a race that could define their careers.
The official raised an arm high into the night sky and fired. The runners were off.
Flashback to the summer of 2000, Sullivan was preparing to qualify for Sydney after missing out on the 1996 Olympics due to injury. He was confident and running as well as he ever had before, setting personal bests in the mile, the 1500-meter and 1000-meter all in the months leading up to the trials in August. As expected, he qualified and then set his sights to September’s Olympic games.
“When you miss one (Olympic games), you’re not sure if you’re ever going to get back again,” Sullivan said. “So, for me there was that sense of oh yeah, I’m still the athlete I was four years ago or better.”
Sullivan built a level of confidence heading into Sydney. Leading up to the start of the games he beat every runner in the field except the eventual gold and silver medalists — Moroccan runner Hicham El Guerrouj and Kenyan runner Noah Ngeny. He knew he could compete with the best runners in the world, and he was ready to show it.
Sullivan jostled for position on the back straight, and the race started shaping into what he had expected. Moroccan runner Youssef Baba grabbed the lead around the 200-meter mark and strung out the field with a blistering pace. Baba wouldn’t be able to keep this up and he knew that, this was just to help his teammate El Guerrouj — the world record holder in the 1500-meter — by turning it into an honest race just as El Guerrouj likes it. The Moroccans employed this strategy frequently whenever they had a second runner alongside El Guerrouj.
“As soon as the second Moroccan made the final, our coaching staff and I were pretty confident in what was gonna happen,” Sullivan said. “So from that perspective, it wasn’t a surprise when it went out that way, we were pretty prepared for that.”
Led by Baba, that first lap went by in a scorching 54 seconds. Sullivan described that beginning as a “shock to the system” after having run two races earlier in the week. But, standing back around eighth place, he wasn’t panicking. He was ready to move up.
Then, the second lap came and with it, a blessing to everyone in the field — except El Guerrouj. Baba fell off pace earlier than expected and posted a 60-second lap that allowed the entire field back into the race. Sullivan worked his way up into sixth place, a spot that put him in position to cover a move by El Guerrouj.
But first, before looking at Sullivan’s finish, it’s important to look back at how he even got to the finals. A few hundredths of a second separated him from his opponents in the semifinals. If not for those key seconds, he’d have missed the chance to compete for a medal on the world’s biggest stage.
Sullivan always found preliminary races to be more stressful than finals. His heat of the quarterfinal is an example why. It was a tactical race early on, with no one wanting to take the pace out of themselves. So, they ran together, congested, waiting for someone to make a move. As the race started heating up, all the runners were fresh and could keep up with the pack.
“With 200 to go, all 12 guys were still in it,” Sullivan said. “So that one is one where it’s a super stressful situation until it really starts rolling. And then, when you’re in that last lap it’s more about trying to be in position, and trying to make sure you’re going as hard as you need to, and hopefully being able to conserve a little bit so that you got something left on the home stretch.”
Sullivan conserved just enough for that last 100 meters. He powered down the home stretch to come in fourth place and earned one of the automatic qualifying spots. The runner in seventh place — the first spot without an automatic qualification — was just 0.26 seconds behind Sullivan.
The semifinal went more smoothly. Sullivan had a great race and came in second in his heat, securing the bid for the final. He now had only one race left in Sydney. And it was one where he could prove everything if he finished highly enough against the elite runners that awaited him.
Whether it was the taxing races leading up to the final or the breakneck speed of the first lap, Sullivan didn’t respond very well to El Guerrouj’s move with 600 meters remaining. He got shuffled back to seventh as the pack strung out once again.
As the bell sounded signifying the final lap, all eyes were on El Guerrouj. He was in first place followed closely by Ngeny and Bernard Lagat of Kenya. Sullivan was in sixth place just behind Spain’s Andrés Diaz. With 300 meters to go, he found his way into fifth. Sullivan was still out of reach of the leaders.
“In hindsight, I don’t know if I would’ve been in a medal position, ” Sullivan said. “But I could’ve been closer to fourth had I positioned myself better a little bit in the middle of the race.”
Sullivan became merely a bystander to what unfolded in the front pack over the final 200 meters. El Guerrouj was desperately holding onto first place fueled by the expectations of his country and the world, but Ngeny and Lagat were breathing on El Guerrouj’s neck. With 100 meters to go El Guerrouj tried to open up, but the effects of leading for the last 500m weighed on him.
Ngeny had just a little bit more to give. He sprinted past a pained El Guerrouj and snatched the gold. He posted an Olympic record time of 3:32.07. He was closely followed by El Guerrouj — who would have to wait until 2004 to finally capture an Olympic gold — in second and his teammate Bernard Lagat in third.
Meanwhile, Sullivan sprinted away from the rest of the chase pack over the final 300 meters to capture fifth with a time of 3:35.50. After two more Olympics, it would still be his highest ever finish.
“2000 was obviously the highlight for a couple of reasons,” Sullivan said. “It was my first games, it was the one I performed the best, and it was the best in terms of the venues, the atmosphere and the crowds, those were all better experiences than Athens and Beijing.”
Sullivan fondly looks back at this race and the spectacle of it all. The talent, the storylines, everything that came together to make this one of the most memorable Olympic 1500-meter races ever.
Or, as Sullivan put it, “One of those classic races.”