Sonia O’Sullivan: Racing now possible again at Oslo’s Impossible Games
Thinking outside the box key in bringing competitive action back for athletes and fans
Norway’s Filip Ingebrigtsen will be competing along with his brothers Henrik and Jakob during Oslo’s Impossible Games. Photograph: Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images
It feels like half the world has been running since the time of the first lockdown, and yet even as things slowly return to normal, the races have all but virtually disappeared. From the major international tracks to the local parks it’s still impossibly quiet.
As we seem to speed through the months, almost midway through summer already, it’s hard not to reflect on where we had once planned to be at this stage of the year: just six weeks from now, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were due to open, and athletes would have been competing throughout Europe, chasing times and qualifying standards and maybe earning some money too.
Instead, and particularly in Ireland it seems, athletes are emerging from their makeshift gyms and training set-ups in their back gardens, sheds and local parks, just as the athletics tracks begin to slowly reopen. It’s like coming out of some extra-long winter training period, although a far more extreme form of enforced hibernation for many.
On the global stage, the Diamond League meetings with top-tier events that feature the cream of world athletes have yet to get started this year. Already, some have been cancelled, others postponed until later in the year; Doha, Shanghai, Stockholm, Rome, Rabat, Eugene all missed their original start date.
This week it was to be the turn of the Oslo Diamond League, also known as The Bislett Games, although once it became clear that couldn’t happen in its usual form, back in April, the organisers looked instead at what might be possible: with that they came up with the Impossible Games.
Taking place this Thursday evening, staged across Norway, Kenya and France, with only 13 events and less than 50 athletes, but with several record attempts, it’s certainly an interesting twist on the new normal. The Bislett Games, home of the famous Dream Mile, has always been one of my favourite meetings, going back to the time I had one of my own breakthrough runs there over 3,000m, back in 1993, winning, in 8:28, the fastest time since the 1988 Olympics.
It will be a Diamond League all right, only not as we know it, but enough to create some sense of light at the end of the tunnel, a beacon of hope for so many athletes, that there may still be some form of season in 2020.
There have already been some micro-meetings in Norway and the Czech Republic, with limited events and no crowd in the stands, but the Impossible Games will be staged over three hours, broadcast live on Norwegian TV and streamed online to a worldwide audience.
While most of the events are limited to Norwegian athletes, there will be athletes from Sweden, including Mondo Duplantis, the recent pole vault indoor world record holder, who will go up against Renaud Lavillenie, who will be competing from his back garden in Pérignat-lès-Sarliève in France, and connected to the event through virtual technology.
Athletes from Finland will also take part, before the headline event, the Maurie Plant memorial 2,000m, which is a two-way match race between Norway and Kenya. Each team will have five athletes, team Norway including the three Ingebrigtsen brothers Henrik, Filip, and Jakob, along with Narve Gilje Nordås and Per Svela.
They will face-off against a quintet of Kenyans dubbed Team Cheruiyot, as it will include 2017 and 2019 1,500m World champions Timothy Cheruiyot and Elijah Manangoi, alongside 800m runner Timothy Sein, steeplechaser Edwin Melly and junior 1500m runner Vincent Keter.
All 10 runners will start at the same time, in Norway and Kenya (the race broadcast live on a split screen), and three athletes must finish from each team. The team with the fastest cumulative time from their top-three runners wins – making this the first virtual race at such a level in the history of athletics. Jakob just recently broke the Norwegian 5km road record in a staged event, and is showing good form already despite the lockdown, and it will be interesting to see the tactics used, and whether or not Norway will give the early pace setting to Nordås and Svela.
Steve Cram is also on board to do the commentary in English across the simultaneous split screen. Cram is the European record holder over 2000m, his 4:51.35 a record that has stood for 35 years, so there may also be individual ambitions for the Norwegian athletes to chase. Part of the novelty is that the Kenyan athletes will be running Nyayo National Stadium in Nairobi, at 1,795m above sea level, having been home for the past few months they will be well acclimatised. It is still likely to be a slight handicap and may just help even up the teams and provide for a more competitive final result.
Also running on the night is Norway’s World Champion 400m hurdles champion Karston Warholm, who will line up for an individual world record attempt over the 300m hurdles, chasing the current record 34.48 held by Britain’s Chris Rawlinson, although Warholm has already run faster indoors. Karoline Bjerkeli Grovdal will also run solo over 3000m, this time using wavelength light technology to help pace her to try and break the 41-year-old Norwegian record still held by Grete Waitz, with her 8:31.75.
The event is being supported by World Athletics to the same level as if it were a full Diamond League event, with their $50,000 contribution to be used towards the prize money for competing athletes.
There is no doubt this is a positive step for athletics, especially for athletes who devote their lives to train and compete and yet faced so much unknown this year. Every new innovation and forward-thinking event like this, especially one that is being live-streamed across the world, could be analysed and used by others to see what is possible, and how each country can use their resources to move forward and help their athletes to find some purpose and motivation in their daily training schedules.
Only two Diamond League events have been outright cancelled (London and Rabat), the rest have been postponed to future dates this year, perhaps not at the level we have been used to in recent years. Maybe now that athletes and fans are so desperate to be a part of these events, see some live action, they will be more appreciative, even as each city and country will be working with different restrictions and protocols. It will be a challenge to get more races on the track, but everyone involved should be everything they can to make it work.
If there is any chance of a full Olympics next year, we also need to test the water now, and work out what is possible, and maybe what is not. That means taking small steps, and gradually building back to full capacity and appreciating even more what we were maybe taking for granted. Life is precious, and sport is life on so many levels. I’m looking forward to tuning into Oslo from Melbourne, in our early morning local time, impossible as that would might sounded just a few weeks ago.