Ian O’Riordan: The changing face and evolution of track’s blue-riband event

World Championship 1,500m in Eugene sees Jake Wightman shake up Jakob Ingebrigtsen in memorable race

No that’s not me in Eugene this week. That’s me in the Stop Pre T-shirt running four laps around the highest GAA pitch in Ireland and reliving all over again one of the grandest ever blue-riband events which happened while you were sleeping.

A race packed and stacked, of power and pace and mystique and majesty, of runners only briefly bunched up like bananas, then strung out like beads on a string, the hunted turning to the hunter, the leader from bossing to being bossed, the classic manoeuvre at the last bend before the winner kicks again from the front.

Some 1,500 metre races will leave this impression no matter when or where you see them, even at 3.30am on a Wednesday morning Dublin Mountain local time, just like that which unfolded over the three and three-quarter laps around Hayward Field on day five of the World Athletics Championships in Oregon.

“Oh My God”, Jake Wightman said to himself moments after crossing the finish line, as well he might.


This was my first running distance, and my first memories of it being mostly slow and more traditionally tactical. Such as when Steve Cram won the first edition of the World Championship 1,500m in Helsinki in 1983. That race was equally packed and stacked, the only main man missing being his British team-mate Sebastian Coe, who sat out most of that season with an illness.

Steve Ovett, Said Aouita, Steve Scott and John Walker were the main pick of the rest and especially after they passed 400m in 65 seconds, slower than the women’s final. They crawled through 800m too until boom! Aouita, who clocked the fastest time that year, hit the front with 500m to go, Cram jostling for the critical position behind.

Then at the 200m-to-go mark – just like Wightman would do 39 years later – Cram kicked past Aouita, some people thinking he’d gone too soon. Only he hadn’t, Cram winning in 3:41.58, the slowest winning time still, Scott finishing second, Aouita third.

When Coe beat Cram to defend his Olympic title in Los Angeles a year later there was a sense this British dominance might continue indefinitely; Wightman’s victory this week was their first global title in the event since that very race. So what else happened?

For some years after Olympic and World Championship finals were often similarly cagey, until one Hicham El Guerrouj shook things up. From 1997, the year after he tripped and fell at the bell of the Olympic final in Atlanta, the Moroccan runner completely took over, typically winning from some distance out and with very rare exception, the main one being the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

Having lost just one 1,500m/mile race since Atlanta, El Guerrouj was considered unbeatable, and looked to be in that race, too, until Kenya’s Noah Ngeny narrowly kicked past him with 25m to go.

In Athens four years after that, a race essentially 12 years in the making for El Guerrouj, he made his move from 800m out, subtly increasing the pace of each 100m-stretch from there, with only Kenya’s Bernard Lagat in close chase entering the homestretch. Lagat, who had beaten him earlier in Zurich, appeared poised to win again, edging slightly ahead with 50m to go.

Only El Guerrouj, the Olympic ghosts of Atlanta and Sydney now howling in the bones of his face, kicked again, winning by .12 of a second before falling to the ground and sobbing like a child a short distance away from those of us sitting in the press seats, as well he might.

Now enter Jakob Ingebrigtsen. There were many traces of El Guerrouj in the way Ingebrigtsen went about winning his Olympic 1,500m title in Tokyo last summer. Though still only 20, it was also among the most flawlessly executed races in 1,500m history.

First, he needed to turn the books on Timothy Cheruiyot, the reigning World champion from Kenya, who had beaten Ingebrigtsen in all 10 of their previous meetings before Tokyo. Secondly, he’d likely need to run faster than ever before, which is exactly what he did, running each 400m split slightly faster as he tracked Cheruiyot, passing him at the 120m-to-go mark and winning in 3:28.32, breaking the Olympic record by just over three seconds.

Cheruiyot was second in 3:29.01, just holding off Britain’s Josh Kerr, who still ran a lifetime best of 3:29.05 to nail the bronze medal. There, Wightman looked class in the semi-finals, only he ended up 10th, running 3:35.09.

Ingebrigtsen’s race splits – 56.14 seconds, 55.64, 55.48, with a final 400m in 54.76 – demand incredibly vast reserves of strength and speed with the mindset to match. If it worked this impressively in Tokyo there was no reason to believe it wouldn’t work so well again in Eugene.

Effectively gone now is that more traditionally slow and tactical race, replaced by only the fast and furious, where still no runner can afford to switch off for one split second without the risk of losing it all. Again Cheruiyot appeared his chief challenger, Ingebrigtsen this time going from 800m out, while Cheruiyot tracked.

Then in one of the boldest and smartest moves in 1,500m history, Wightman came up alongside Ingebrigtsen down the backstretch and kicked inside him with 200m to go. Had he gone too soon? Only instead of Ingebrigtsen coming again, Wightman kicked again from the front, winning in a personal best of 3:29.23, just .24 ahead of the young Norwegian.

“That’s my son,” came word from the in-stadium announcer Geoff Wightman. “I coach him and he’s the World champion.”

Still just 21, Ingebrigtsen was expected to dominate this event for the decade to come, only now Wightman at age 28 has shaken things up again, evidence that even when fast and furious the 1,500m can still be a pure kickers race. Things changed in other ways too, the top five finishers all European, no Kenyan-born athlete on the podium for the first time since 2005.

“I know that I’m better than silver, so I’m embarrassed being this good, but also this bad,” Ingebrigtsen said afterwards, a statement any runner other than Ingebrigtsen might be embarrassed about.

So to Sunday’s 5,000m final, Ingebrigtsen looking to make amends for the way things unfolded over the three and three-quarter laps, this time over 12 and a half laps. This time though he’ll have two fellow gold medal winners from Tokyo for company, 10,000m champion Selemon Barega from Ethiopia, and 5,000m champion and world record holder Joshua Cheptegei from Uganda.

Ingebrigtsen’s best chance of winning on Sunday is to turn it into the sort of 1,500m race which until Wednesday at least only he could possibly win. Such is the changing face and evolution of track’s blue-riband event.