During a group run , James Rhodes shared his surprise that he’d not seen much written on a particular narrative. It sits in the context of the indoor season currently underway. It’s a perfect example of how we can promote our sport.
Getting to specifics it’s about two exciting young athletes racing over 600m. On opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean. A pair that, when they race together, help bring feverish anticipation to two laps of the track. When they race, it is undoubtedly exciting. Can one build similar excitement when they race apart, over a distance not specially known to whet the appetite?
It stayed in the back of my mind for the rest of the run. Once home, I thought ‘let’s share this somewhat random thought on twitter, I’m sure someone will agree’.
Of course, that wouldn’t resolve my own initial point that no one was telling this story. Then I realised, I have a platform I’m lucky to be able to write on. So here is a piece I thought I’d like to read. It is written to celebrate a pair of incredible female middle-distance stars and hopefully build excitement for the season ahead.
Sport loves a good rivalry. Whether actual or perceived, it’s long existed and of course will continue to do so. Athletes, whether individual or teams, going head-to-head and captivating our attention in the way only sport can.
Running is no different – a glance into the history books shows no shortage of rivalries. They have been the backbone of many good track and field stories over the years. The golden era, as people like to refer to, was full of them.
Fast forward to today. When looking beyond the mainstream headlines this sport, at least in terms of performances delivered, is in a good place.
There are some singlehandedly elevating their discipline to performances scarcely thought possible. The mind thinks of Eliud Kipchoge or Letsebenet Gidey. Sydney McLaughlin over ten hurdles on the track. Yulimar Rojas and Mondo Duplantis in their respective field events.
Every time they compete the world not only watches, but expects. It is a major shock when they do not win. Individuals whose performances can, when not bettering the World Record, feel semi-disappointing.
At the same time, there are other events where boundaries are being pushed thanks to competition. The same fundamental concept exists, individuals line up and compete to win. When they do so, there’s an expectation that a spectacular performance may about to be witnessed. However, the added layer of intrigue comes from having two or more athletes producing fireworks in the same event.
They might not always share a race at the same competition, but maybe can gain motivation from each other’s performances. When they do come together, the anticipation is palpable. The winner is not guaranteed, but something special almost certainly is.
Looking back over the past twelve months, a few spring to mind. Karsten Warholm, Rai Benjamin and Alison Dos Santos in the 400m hurdles. Joe Kovacs and Ryan Crouser in the shot put. The Jamaican trio of Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce, Shericka Jackson and Elaine Thompson-Herah in the sprints.
Rightly on that list too are Athing Mu and Keely Hodgkinson in the 800m.
The same age, the same distance, it is a story tellers dream. Until recently, it was the battle of the teenagers. Two athletes eligible to compete at U20 level but instead find themselves competing on the biggest stages possible.
Making up 50% of the top four fastest U20 athletes over 800m in history, they likely need no introduction.
20 years old. North American Record Holder, Olympic Gold, World Championships Gold.
20 years old. British Record Holder, Olympic Silver, World Championships Silver.
Can one call it a rivalry? They might not call it as such, but it certainly fits the bill. Afterall, the dictionary defines it as “a state in which two people are competing for the same thing”. A rivalry doesn’t have to be unhealthy. When used in the right way it can help grow the sport and push individual performances.
Perhaps it fits more so given their lack of direct competition, having raced each other just three times. The anticipation builds further when they do meet since it tends to be at pinnacle of track and field.
The first outing, the Tokyo Olympics. Six tenths of a second separated the duo who both set national records in the process. Eighteen days later they met again, at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene. Fast forward a year and the same Hayward Field track hosted the most exciting match up yet – the World Championships.
Ahead of that race, I wrote that in a ‘period packed with high quality competitions, it is the women’s 800m that I – like many others – have been most looking forward to watching’. I said it had the potential to be a classic final. I was right.
Presuming it doesn’t happen beforehand, Athing – Keely in Eugene could be my most anticipated race of 2022!
— James Rhodes (@James_Athletics) June 9, 2022
The colour of the medals taken home may have stayed the same, but the gap between the two had reduced. Six tenths in Tokyo, down to just six hundredths in Eugene. Thoughts turned to the next time they might meet.
That is most likely to be at the World Championships in Budapest. Plenty of time for their story to be shared and the excitement to build.
This is all good and well, but why am I writing this now? Last summer has been and gone, and it is 29 weeks until Budapest.
Three days ago Keely found herself at the Manchester Indoor Arena. It was familiar surroundings, home to many a training session for the Leigh Harrier. She was there to race 600m. Three laps of a track her spikes have circled countless times. Just, on this occasion, there were a couple of hundred people inside and more watching a livestream.
A World Indoor Tour bronze meeting organised by Bryggen Sports, a comparatively low-key venue for a star of British athletics. Its nature meant the December announcement of her participation, particularly the advertised pace, seemed to largely go under the radar.
Later publicity billed it as a British Record attempt, looking to better the 2007 mark set by Jenny Meadows. A familiar target perhaps, given Keely is coached by Jenny’s husband, Trevor Painter.
Behind the scenes, unannounced to the wider world, the goal was more ambitious. Perhaps some had clocked the pace in the original announcement and knew what might happen. It had said 54 seconds for 400m. That wasn’t British Record pace, it was World Record pace. (Technically, World Best pace as 600m is not recognised as a World Record distance).
Saturday afternoon, 15:10. The gun goes off. Did the spectators in Manchester, or those watching online, have an inkling of what was planned? Possibly not.
Only the beadiest of eyes were likely to have caught 54 seconds, let alone calculate resultant possibilities. The words British Record had been said enough times, which in itself obviously would be a noteworthy achievement.
Lap one. 27.0. Lap two. 54.59. Finish. 1:23.81. A World Indoor Best, taking three hundredths off the time set by Olga Kotlyarova in February 2004.
Keely was 32 days old the day that previous mark was set. Back then, did she (well, her family, given athletics probably isn’t in the conscious of a baby) think one day she would hold that record.
It may not be the most raced distance on the calendar, but that’s not to detract from its significance. There is a reason that record lived for 19 years, it was tough to beat. It certainly isn’t for a lack of others trying to better it.
More importantly, perhaps is its history making context. Keely is the only British female to hold a current World Record or World Best, indoors or outdoors. It deserves to be celebrated.
It bodes well for whatever comes next. Hodgkinson is due to race over 800m in Torun and Birmingham on the 8th and 25th February respectively. There is the small matter of a possible European Indoor title defence, too. A nice birthday present perhaps, given she will turn 21 whilst the event is happening.
How About Athing?
Where does Athing Mu come into this, you ask?
It was announced two weeks ago that she would be competing at the Millrose Games in New York on 11th February. One of the most prestigious indoor meetings on the calendar, steeped in decades of history. What distance? 600m.
The goal was likely clear from the outset. Afterall, Athing has run 1:23.57 for, at the time, the second fastest time in history. Perhaps, however, the motivation levels have gone up a notch now though. Isn’t it exciting?
In the context of middle-distance racing, it is not often the world witnesses a fastest time in history. Certainly not in my lifetime. Yet here it could happen twice in a fortnight, in the same event! Two athletes in the relative early stages of their career, striving to be the greatest.
Maybe it even makes exciting a race or distance that, for some, might have been slightly less so beforehand. It deserves to be celebrated – the future is bright.
Regardless of whether the record falls once more, the next time these two supreme athletes and characters meet, it will be special.