Olympic aspirations, GB’s middle distance hopefuls

Few countries have a tradition as proud as British middle-distance running. Bannister’s first four minute mile, the dominance of Coe, Cram and Ovett and the trailblazing barefoot feet of Zola Budd, these are but highlights in a deep history. It is a fact that makes recent troubles all the more disheartening. In that wonderful August week of 2004, Kelly Holmes provided the exception, kicking her way to GB’s first 800 and 1500 Olympic double. Take her bronze in Sydney out of the equation and not since 1988 have Great Britain & NI had an Olympic medallist at either the 800 or 1500m.

Times may have changed, but 2021 could represent a genuine renaissance, with a handful of realistic medal contenders across both distances and for both men and women. Getting on the plane to Tokyo will be a battle in and of itself, with Olympic final ambitions a credible goal for all those who succeed.

800 Metres (Men)

In 2020 only 2 men in the world ran a faster two laps round the track than Daniel Rowden. What makes it all the more ominous is that he did it aged 22 and after having stomach surgery to treat Mals (Median arcuate ligament syndrome). Throw in the fact that on the only occasion he raced one of the two quicker he comfortably beat them, and did so with an almost Rudisha-esque smoothness of stride and you have an athlete that British fans have every reason to get excited about. Questions will come about how he can handle a three round championship but on 2020 form and with age on his side, Rowden should punch his ticket to Tokyo, and if he does will be one every athletics fan should keep their eyes on.

Rowden’s world-class victory in the Memorial Borisa Hanzekovica

What’s long forgotten is that going into the British Champs in September, Rowden wasn’t even the favourite for the 800m, having been beaten by Elliot Giles in Sweden and with Jake Wightman having run the second fastest British 1500m of all time a few weeks before in Monaco. Both will take to any start line believing they can compete with Rowden but if they don’t there’ll be a whole host of suitors lining up to take their shot. With the schedule unlikely to realistically allow Wightman to contest both the 800 and 1500m in Tokyo (unless he wants to sacrifice any realistic medal prospects) it would seem there are 2 places up for grabs, and in this it seems likely it will come down to a straight shootout in the 2021 British Champs from a stupidly deep field. 3 will come from the below 6.

Athlete2020 Seasons BestPBMajor Performances (Senior)
Daniel Rowden1.
Elliot Giles1.44.561.44.562016 – Euro Champs – Bronze
Jamie WebbInjured1.44.522019 – Euro Indoors Silver
Max Burgin1.44.751.44.75
Kyle Langford1.44.831.44.832018 Commonwealth Games Silver, 2017 World Champs 4th
Guy Learmonth1.45.571.44.732014 Commonwealth Games 6th
PB/SBs taken from Power of 10 at 23 December 2020

Our Team Prediction – Daniel Rowden, Elliot Giles and Jamie Webb (Rowden to win Bronze)

800 Metres (Women)

Although the 800m has two clear front runners in Jemma Reekie and Laura Muir, Tokyo 2020 scheduling means the 800m slot for GB could be thrown wide open. Anyone wishing to do the double would have to run 6 times in 8 days and though possible it seems sensible that the pairs coach, Andy Young, will split them between the events.

Friday 30th July800m Round One
Saturday 31st July 800m Semi-Finals
Monday 2nd August1500m Round One
Tuesday 3rd August 800m Final
Wednesday 4th August1500m Semi-Finals
Friday 6th August 1500m Final

Given Reekie ran a British record indoors in Glasgow in February 2020 (1.57.91), won the Diamond League and has beaten all but Faith Kipyegon on the circuit, the 22 year old Scot would start the campaign as a realistic gold medal prospect. Muir’s 1.58.44 is mightily impressive and she has doubled up in the past but her better prospects perhaps lie in the 1500m. With Kipyegon so imperious in that event and highly likely to seek to defend her Olympic crown (at the expense of a 800m double), you could see why Muir may want a shot at both events.

Lynsey Sharp, the Commonwealth Games and European silver medallist has run a faster 800m than both of them, running 1.57.69 in her Olympic Final in Rio and she will aim to get back to form and earn her place in 2021. She has also run the qualifying time back in July 2019.

Behind the three of them no other athletes have as yet run the qualifying time of 1.59.50. If either of Adelle Tracey or Alex Bell can shave four tenths of a second of their personal bests they’ll both be highly likely to get the 3rd spot. The same can be said for Shelayna Oskan-Clarke, if she can get back to her best and youngsters Keely Hodgkinson and Isabelle Boffey will be dreaming of a late push, though sitting over 1.5 seconds outside the qualifying mark both may be eyeing Paris 2024 as the ultimate goal.

Sarah McDonald has run within half a second of the qualifying time though will likely focus on the 1500m where she already has the time.

Our Team Prediction: Jemma Reekie, Lynsey Sharp, Adelle Tracey (Reekie to win Silver)

1500 Metres (Mens)

The British Champs on 26-27 June will be worth tuning in for this race alone. 9 athletes have genuine aspirations of making the squad, though only 4 have yet run the Olympic qualifying time of 3.35.00. In prime position, Jake Wightman, whose 3.29.47 in Monaco was not only third in a world class field, but the second fastest by a Brit ever. Whilst he chose to compete in the 800m in the 2020 British champs, in the 1500m he has a genuine outside chance of an Olympic medal and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him on the plane irrespective of whether he performs in the British Champs or not.

The best of the rest for me is Josh Kerr who wasn’t able to make the British Champs in 2020 due to currently residing in Seattle, but still ran 3.34.53 in his only outing this year. With a 3.32.52 PB and youth on his side the three time NCAA champion should have enough. Charlie Da’Vall Grice and James West will both have something to say about that statement, the former’s 3.30.62 in Monaco in 2019 a reminder of his pedigree. If Grice can get back to the form that led him to a World Championship final in 2015 the place is his, though he will need to improve from recent outings on the domestic circuit. West by comparison is an athlete on the up having ran GB’s second fastest 1500m in 2020. His 5th place in the Doha Diamond league shows he’s rounding into form at just the right time and he has a strong claim to upset the established order.

Behind them are a group who are all chasing the qualifying time, though each of them have their reasons. Piers Copeland leads the pack and needs to find just 33 hundredths of a second to qualify. Chris O’Hare didn’t compete beyond February and will be confident of achieving the standard but will be facing stiffer competition than he ever has before. A genuine world class competitor with a 3.32.11 PB he should, however, be dismissed at your peril.

British Champ and son of England footballer Danny, George Mills has a finishing kick which will play into his hands in any slower Championship race but he will likely spend the first half of the year chasing that qualifying standard. Both him and Josh Lay will need to find in the region of two seconds but as U23’s may have Paris 2024 in their sights.

Finally Neil Gourlay is an athlete that struggled with injuries in 2020. He has shown his class in the past as a European Indoor finalist and will have hopes of putting together a run of form.

Our Team Predictions: Jake Wightman, Josh Kerr, James West (and one of these three to knick a medal)

1500 Metres (Womens)

GB has 6 athletes well inside the Olympic Standard of 4.06.10. Laura Muir, Laura Weightman, Sarah McDonald, Jemma Reekie, Melissa Courtney-Bryant and Eilish McColgan. Selection for this event may be less of a headache for selectors with scheduling again making a 800/1500 double unlikely and a 1500/5000 double the same (The women’s 1500m Round 1 is on the same day as the 5000 final).

With our prediction that Reekie is to do the 800 and Muir the 1500, McColgan, Weightman and Courtney-Bryant will all have to decide whether it will be the 1500 or the 5000. Weightman is world class in both events and in 2020 boasted the 5th fastest time in the world in the longer event. With the front of the field almost 30 seconds ahead of her, however, she may be better suited to a medal in a tactical race over the shorter distance. Her and Steve Cram will have to decide, but either way there will be a slot open in either event by her moving aside. McColgan seems almost certain to compete over the longer distance so from there the team could pick itself, if Courtney-Bryant choose to step up to 5,000 also.

McDonald has the best of the PBs from outside Muir and Weightman and will hope to remind selectors of her credentials after a raceless 2020. Like Sharp in the 800, McDonald has the qualifying time from July 2019.

Jess Judd and Katie Snowden have the pedigree to prize open a place but will have to improve on their 2020 form. With the front-runners established as genuinely world class the door, for now, is only very slightly ajar.

Muir will go into the event as one of the favourites, though Faith Kipyegon’s form over 2020 has been imperious to say the least. Sifan Hassan had a quiet 2020 by comparison but will no doubt be there or thereabouts should she decided to contest the 1500m.

Our predictions: Muir, Weightman, Courtney-Bryant (Muir to win silver).

Featured image “Faith Chepngetich Kipyegon, Laura Muir und weitere 1500-Meter-Läuferinnen bei den IAAF Leichtathletik-Weltmeisterschaften 2017 in London” by marcoverch is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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