U.S. distance runner Galen Rupp, a five-time consecutive U.S. champion in the 10,000-meter run, had aspirations of being the first U.S. gold medalist in that event since Billy Mills won the 10,000 meters in 1964.
Rupp came up one place short, but just being the first medalist in the 10,000 since 1964 was enough to became an instant U.S. distance-running legend.
The 10,000 first became an Olympic track and field event in 1912. One hundred years later, Rupp became only the third U.S. runner in the event’s history to earn a medal, finishing second in Saturday’s race to Great Britain’s Mo Farah.
Farah’s win is even more significant in Great Britain than Rupp’s medal is to the United States. Farah, the runner-up in the 10,000 at the 2011 World Outdoor Track and Field Championships, became Great Britain’s first gold medalist ever in the event and achieved that feat on his nation’s home soil in London.
Rupp’s performance, however, is a very significant feat for U.S. distance running. The American record holder in the 10,000 with a best time of 26 minutes, 48.00 seconds, Rupp did something that no other U.S. distance runner—including Steve Prefontaine and Rupp’s coach, Alberto Salazar—could do in the past 48 years: win an Olympic medal in the 10,000.
Rupp was unable to beat Farah, but he was able to beat many other great runners in a very talented field. That field included Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele, the 10,000 world-record holder and two-time defending Olympic champion in the distance, along with his brother Tariku Bekele and Eritrea’s Zersenay Tadese, the 2004 Olympic bronze medalist in the 10,000.
Ethiopia has had a 10,000 medalist in every Olympics since 1992, but on this day, Rupp was able to finish ahead of all three Ethiopian runners.
Defeating Kenenisa Bekele, the greatest 10,000 runner ever, was a huge feat for Rupp, especially considering Kenenisa Bekele had never lost in all 14 previous races at the distance that he had finished.
The race was also an incredible moment for Salazar, who coaches both Farah and Rupp. Salazar—a three-time New York City Marathon champion, one-time Boston Marathon champion and former U.S. record-holder in the 5,000-meter run and 10,000—told The Oregonian that the race was “better than anything I ever did in my own running career.”
Rupp has already made his mark on the 2012 London Games, but he has a chance to make his mark even greater if he can medal in the 5,000-meter run, an event in which the U.S. has also not earned a medal since 1964.
If he can earn a medal, he would be the first U.S. runner ever to medal in both the 5,000 and 10,000, not only in a single Olympics, but over an entire Olympic career.
Rupp will once again have to go up against a very strong field of distance runners, including Farah, Ethiopia’s Dejen Gebremeskel, Kenya’s Isiah Koech and fellow U.S. runner Bernard Lagat. Rupp proved on Saturday, however, that he has the talent to beat the world’s best on the Olympic stage.
Regardless of Rupp’s finish in the 5,000-meter run next Saturday, he will be revered for his result in becoming the first U.S. medalist in either race since 1964. His performance on Saturday, however, has created excitement for the possibility of Rupp going after more hardware in London.
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Dan Hope is a Bleacher Report Featured Columnist covering the 2012 Olympic Games. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Hope.