What makes athletes kick out and win the race?
This is rather directly answered in a retrospective by Billy Mills, the underdog who won 10,000m at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. Billy Mills was one of the dispossessed born as Makata-Taka-Hela on a South Dakota reservation into the Oglala Sioux. He was orphaned at the age of 12 but qualified to run for the USA at the Olympics. The favorite was Australian Ron Clarke who was the world-record holder but there were at least a dozen runners in the final who were more likely to win than Mills whose personal best was a full minute slower than Clarke's. We met Clarke last week being slashed at by Landy. As they came into final stretch they lapped a German runner who had an eagle on his singlet. It was as if his dead father, if not the gods of his people, called forth the better-than-best from Mills and lent wings to his heels and he thought "I may never be this close again. I’ve got to do it now". With that he swung wide, struck out and cruised past Clarke and Mohammed Gammoudi of Tunisia, to win gold. You can hear the NBC commentator losing the run of himself in the final seconds of the race: his loss of gravitas lost him his job!
A rather different underdog story is that of Tom Byers an American middle distance runner, who participated in a famous 1500m race in Oslo 26th June 1981. Byers was a strong miler back home in Ohio but everyone; the other racers, the commentators put him down as "the rabbit" for that race, who would set the pace for the World Record holder Steve Ovett and the other greyhounds. Byers led from the front and opened up an absurd lead in front of the peleton, who got locked into a relativity time-warp believing that they were running just fine and jockeying for position for the final kick out. As they entered the last lap, Byers was 70m ahead and Ovett, who hadn't been beaten at that distance in the previous four years, suddenly woke up and tried to make up lost ground. But Byers held the champion off the line by a full half second and won. In interview later, Byers recognised it as a fluke but people will remember his win long after the regular cycle of Ovett's triumphs because we all like it when the high and mighty are brought down a peg.
Here's another view of Ovett losing the plot by acting like a god accepting the plaudits of the home crowd before he crosses the line at the end of a 5000m race in London in 1980. Ovett was happier at 800m and 1500m but won a 5000m gold medal in 1986 at the Commonwealth Games. John "The Mudlark" Treacy from Cappoquin Co Waterford (huzzah!) who went on to win a silver medal in the marathon at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics was more of a long-distance cross-country endurance runner who was reputed to have poor "finish". But in London that night, Treacy gave it socks and snatched the race from Ovett by a whisker. You can beat the Waterford men, but you treat them with airy contempt at your peril.
Lest you think that Ovett was total crap, you can see him in far better form a couple of weeks after his Byers misjudgement when they were both back again in Oslo. This second 1500m race was billed as the 1981 Dream Mile because it was chock full of champion middle distance runners including (huzzah! huzzah!) Irishman Eamonn Coghlan. Ovett wins because he concentrated and worked at being better than anyone else on the night, rather than assuming it.