As 2023 draws towards a close, James Rhodes brings you five of his personal highlights from the year.
As a photographer, writer and equally important fan of the sport, I’ve attended my fair share of events this year, plus watched many more from home. They have delivered plenty of highs and lows, joy and despair, tears and smiles. In looking back at the past twelve months, it’d be easy to write about THAT 1500m final in Budapest, other medal-winning moments or record breaking times. They were undoubtedly highlights. However, this article tries focus on other, just as exciting, moments that maybe have not necessarily been as extensively written about in recently weeks.
1. This is the World’s Stage
Those five words were written around the Olympic Stadium (ok, London Stadium) for the London Diamond League. A sunny Sunday afternoon in a stadium at capacity for an athletics event for the first time in years. The stars of the sport had assembled, with plenty on the line. One race was more intriguing than most – a domestic men’s 800m.
It was the last day to run the World Championship standard. A time that, as the starter’s gun went off, no one had achieved. Over two laps and less than two minutes of running, a seismic shift occurred in British men’s 800m running. Thirty British men have run inside 1:45 in history. Six did it in that race alone.
Max Burgin. 1:43.85, the second fastest time of his fragile career. It wasn’t quite to be in Budapest, but two rounds is two more than in Eugene twelve months prior.
Ben Pattison. 1:44.02, a PB. You don’t need me to tell you what happened next.
Alex Botterill. 1:44.75, a PB.
Guy Learmonth. 1:44.80, his fastest since 2017, just seven hundredths shy of his PB set five years earlier in the same stadium.
Also worth mentioning are Tom Randolph (1:44.88), Ethan Hussey (1:44.96) and Reece Sharman-Newell (1:45.49), who all set PBs too.
That race was a perfect demonstration of what can happen when athletes are provided with opportunities to perform. Those at the top of the sport should seek to provide as many of them as possible.
2. Belonging with the Best
As in any sport, some people and performances can be overlooked or under-appreciated. One person who perhaps fits into this category is Jess Warner-Judd. She sits in the top-ten on the British all-time lists for 5000m and 10,000m on the track, plus 10k and half marathon on the roads. Let’s not forget she ran a 67:19 half marathon in Houston to kickstart the year.
Always present, yet rarely the headline. Continually hard working whilst being a genuinely kind person (not many athletes would happily pace an 800m for young girls, as she did at a BMC meeting at Lee Valley in 2020). Some of her fastest performances have been overshadowed (for want of a better word) by those of others.
Ten years after her maiden World Championships, an event where she has raced over four distances, Jess had the best run of her career to finish eighth in the 10,000m in Budapest. It was the best British finish over 25 laps at a World Championships since Jo Pavey in 2007.
If the performance alone wasn’t enough a highlight, what happened next certainly was. With most the field either lying on the floor, on a lap of honour, or halfway through the mixed zone, Jess stayed trackside, the only athlete to clap in every finisher behind her. Brazil’s Maria Lucineida da Silva finished over four minutes after she did; yet she waited, supporting and encouraging the crowd to do the same. It was a lovely moment.
Plus, the season ended with a PB over 5000m in Brussels (14:51.53). An excellent ending to an excellent season.
3. Depth in Numbers
If a single race defines British men’s 800m racing this year, the opposite is true on the women’s side. Eleven British women (twelve including Adelle Tracey) ran under 2:00 this year. To add some historical context, only 34 British women have done so in history. Six did last year, the same number in 2021. Undoubtedly technology on and off the track is playing its part, but it remains something to celebrate.
The star of the 800m show continued to shine this year. Not many people could both open and close their season with a British Record, but Keely Hodgkinson is one of them. An opener on a warm Saturday night came in Paris delivered a statement of intent; 1:55.77. Maybe she knew Athing Mu was in the stands. The big show, the race that exceeded expectations in Eugene, did not disappoint in Budapest. Once again, fireworks. Once again, silver the outcome. Athing was beaten, but not Mary Moraa.
A month later came the Diamond League final at Hayward Field. The same one-two as last summer, just faster. 1:55.19, equal-tenth on the all-time list. She sits alongside Jolanda Ceplak, the World Indoor Record holder. A coincidence not unnoticed, since that mark, one on Keely’s radar, was set the day Hodgkinson was born. Maybe it will fall next year? Afterall, the World Indoors final is 22 years to-the-day since it was set. Keely’s birthday. That’d be a nice present.
A standalone article could be written on this. Five broke the sub-two barrier for the first time. For Issy Boffey, it was a matter of when, not if. Having run 2:00, 2:01 or 2:02 28 times since 2021, sub-two came in Madrid in July; 1:59.30. A World Championships qualifier on the penultimate day to qualify, and inside the Olympic standard – to the hundredth of the second. The reaction was a delight, and you can read more from Issy here.
Issy’s training partner Abbie Ives joined the club in Belfast in May, running 1:59.92. The home of fast middle-distance times, Watford, provided memorable races for Revee Walcott Nolan, Erin Wallace and Khai Mhalanga. All deserving of their performance, with Revee and Erin returning from injury impacted 2022s. Neither raced on the track last summer after excellent 2021s. They lined up for the same race in Watford, and both broke two minutes for the first time.
Seeing Jemma Reekie return to her best has been great, plus Alex Bell bouncing back after not being selected for Budapest. Such is the depth, and it makes for an exciting 2024.
A short entry now, almost as short as the race. It is not a distance usually covered, but the men’s 100m final at the British Championships in Manchester makes the cut.
If there was a record for the fastest-time-run-in-a-monsoon, Zharnel Hughes’ 10.03 would undoubtedly be it. In weather so bad the TV feed cut out, it was a performance perhaps more impressive than his British Record, or World Championships bronze.
Plus, it made for some great photos.
5. Long Time Coming
The start of the article promised five highlights, that might have been a lie. This last one combines three emotional moments (author note: I couldn’t decide what to cut, so I didn’t).
After running a 3:31.30 PB (and British U23 Record) at the London Diamond League in the Olympic Stadium, Matt Stonier shared a lovely post on Instagram. “11 years ago a little 10 year old kid had the privilege of watching London 2012, hoping he might step foot on the same track one day. 11 years later, in front of 50,000 people that dream came true”. Flick through the photos in the below post, the replication eleven years on is impressive.
View this post on Instagram
Two field events to end; even more different to usual coverage. Jazmin Sawyers’ reaction to finally jumping seven metres in the long jump was glorious. The results board took longer than usual to show the distance, which added to the emotion. It came at the European Indoor Championships, giving her a first international title.
Finally, when Renaud Lavillenie broke the pole vault World Record back in 2014, it was nice that it happened at a pole vault specific event, organised by Sergey Bubka, the previous WR holder. Mondo Duplantis has since become accustomed to breaking the World Record, but they’d all been at general competitions. In February, he broke it for the sixth time in February, at the All Star Perche meeting, dedicated to pole vault. The event is organised by Renaud. Full circle! The best part however was Renaud’s reaction to seeing his friend and competitor go better than he ever has done before. You can see it here.
So, there we have it. Hopefully the next twelve months will bring as many memorable moments as 2023 did. After all, it will be an Olympic year!