Tokyo Olympics Athletics – Our highlights

With the dust settling on an enthralling athletics programme at the Tokyo Olympics we run our eyes over the highlights and performances that caught our eye.

Race of the Tokyo Olympic Games

Rai Benjamin’s performance at any other Olympics would have been seismic. Over half a second below the existing world record, all on the biggest occassion of his life. That Karsten Warholm was one stride in front makes it unfathomable. That Alison Dos Santos became the third quickest of all time gives it a touch of the insane.

Perhaps the greatest athletics race of all time took place in Toyko and frankly it’s not even close.

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Well it actually turns out it might be. Just days later the women did almost the exact same. Sydney McLaughlin and Dalilah Muhammad dueling right to the line. 51.46, 51.58 and with Femke Bol running 52.03 she also became the third fastest of all time. 400m hurdles is booming and with Bol and McLaughlin just 21 and 22 it’s only just beginning.

The 400m hurdles, both men and women, will be the highlights of not just this Olympics but many global athletics champs to come.

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Breakout star of the Tokyo Olympic Games

We knew Athing Mu was good. Did we know she was that good? Well probably yes to that too. But expecting something and delivering it at your first Olympics is something completely different. Mu is a phenomenon and could well become one of the sport’s most decorated ever athletes. An Olympic gold, having barely turned 19, just how far will Mu go? Don’t write anything off. Her 4 x 400m women’s gold makes her a double Olympic champ.

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Shock of the Tokyo Olympic Games

Johannes Vetter came to Tokyo as the man to beat. Undefeated in two years, 19 consecutive wins and the second furthest throw of all time. Reach anywhere near his best and a first Olympic title was surely his. No-one in the field had thrown within five metres of his furthest.

Vetter never challenged in Tokyo, second in his qualification group and then ninth in the final. His 82.53m first round throw was not even good enough to enter the second phase of throws.

Neeraj Chopra came to Tokyo as the fourth best in the field on 2021 bests. He leaves as the Olympic champion and India’s first ever athletics Olympic gold medalist. Some return and hopefully a breakout performance for the country (to see a piece I produced for World Athletics click here).

Interestingly silver and bronze medalists in Tokyo, Jakub Vadlejch and Vítězslav Veselý are 6th and 11th on the 2021 World list. They are two who stepped up when it matters.

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British performance of the Tokyo Olympic Games

Many deserve mention. Holly Bradshaw’s first and most treasured global medal, jumping 4.85m to finally deliver her best on the biggest occassion. Keely Hodgkinson’s mature silver in the 800m, displaying a tactical nous well beyond her nineteen years. Josh Kerr’s fearless pursuit of the best two milers in the world to claim 1500m bronze.

But for me it has to be Laura Muir. Since 2015, Muir has reached five different global outdoor finals. 5th, 7th, 4th, 6th and in Doha fifth. Always in the mix, always falling agonisingly short. On Saturday 6th August, the Scotswomen exercised those demons, banishing the heartache in one symbolic sprint down the home straight. Passing Sifan Hassan, Muir’s silver was a visceral reminder that the highest of highs often come not far from the lows that help define them.

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Country performance of the Tokyo Olympic Games

Elaine Thompson-Herah, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Shericka Jackson. Your women’s 100m Olympic medalists. A clean sweep of the podium is almost impossible but Jamaica have now done it twice. Echoing Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake and Warren Weir in London 2012 (over 200m), the Jamaican trio are the best in the world right now. It will come as no great shock that they backed it up with 4 x 100m relay gold.

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Unheralded performance of the Tokyo Olympic Games

Yulimar Rojas is the finest female triple jumper the world has ever seen. Her 15.67m, seventeen centimetres better than a once untouchable 25 year old world record. With three of the top four furthest jumps ever it is time we recognised the Venezuelan as perhaps the most talented in world athletics. To read about her extraordinary early life have a read of her story.

Like our Olympics athletics highlights, check out the rest of our Tokyo comment pieces here.

Peres Jepchirchir Olympic contender

Peres Jepchirchir – Olympic champion elect?

Peres Jepchirchir heads to Tokyo seeking Olympic glory. With the era of Eliud Kipchoge nearing its end, Kenya looks for its next great marathon … Continue reading Peres Jepchirchir – Olympic champion elect?

Yulimar Rojas, Venezuela’s first athletics gold medallist?

To say the reigning triple jump world champion has talent will come as a surprise to no-one. To note it could have come in … Continue reading Yulimar Rojas, Venezuela’s first athletics gold medallist?

Stewart McSweyn Doha

The rise and rise of Stewart McSweyn

Five years ago Stewart (Stewie) McSweyn was watching the Olympics from the comfort of his sofa. Whilst his compatriots were soaking in the atmosphere … Continue reading The rise and rise of Stewart McSweyn

Keni Harrison

Keni Harrison, a lesson in resilience

In our obsession with medal tables and Olympic titles, it is easy to forget the achievement in just getting to a Games. Being at … Continue reading Keni Harrison, a lesson in resilience

Remember the name, Luvo Manyonga

On 13th August 2016 a twenty-five year old from Paarl in the Western Cape of South Africa stood at the end of a runway. … Continue reading Remember the name, Luvo Manyonga

Featured image “View from Tokyo Skytree” by Kinchan1 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Peres Jepchirchir – Olympic champion elect?

Peres Jepchirchir heads to Tokyo seeking Olympic glory. With the era of Eliud Kipchoge nearing its end, Kenya looks for its next great marathon hope and in the 27-year-old they may just have the heiress.

The early career of Peres Jepchirchir

It is over seven years since Jepchirchir ran her first marathon. A third place finish in Kisumu in 2hr 47mins was a steady introduction to the distance but by recent standards the most modest of debuts. It was the following year where she really announced herself to the world of elite level athletics. As cross-country races go, there is perhaps none more competitive than the Kenyan Cross-Country Championships, a race that needs to be seen to truly be believed. Unheralded alongside the twenty-year old on the start line was Emily Chebet, twice the World Cross-Country champion most recently just a year before.

When Jepchirchir moved away from Chebet with ease she gave a glimpse of what was to come. Only Faith Kipyegon, soon to be minted as the Olympic 1500m champion could beat her that day and only with her final kick. It was enough to get her noticed and see her flying out to Europe for her first season on the continent. Impressive wins in Houilles, Cassis and a debut half marathon win in Montbéliard followed. Slowly, steadily she was making her way to the top.

Such was the level of world marathon running at the time that is was easy to go unnoticed. A DNF in London in 2015 in her first return to the marathon kept that status but in September she grew difficult to ignore. 30.55 in Prague over 10k, only one woman in the world ran quicker that year.

World Half Marathon Champ

The month of March has been kind to Jepchirchir. It was then that she announced herself in Kenya and it was two years later that she made the same proclamation to the world. Peres Jepchirchir came to Cardiff as a contender, the seventh fastest in the world the previous year. She left as the World Half-Marathon Champion. In wet conditions she ran away from the rest of the field before outkicking her compatriot Cynthia Limo.

During the years that have followed Jepchirchir’s resume has only grown stronger. In Ras Al Khaimah the following year she broke the world record. Running 65:06 she broke the 20km world record too. And in 2020 she became the World Half Marathon Champion once more, defeating one of the best fields ever assembled over the distance.

Yet it is testament to the level of elite level distance running that such accolades still leave her with doubters. Record breaking performances have been intermingled with moments of disappointment. Fifth in the New Delhi half at the back end of 2016. Sixth in the Ras Al Khaimah in 2019, she now sits 10th on the World Half Marathon all time list (though she does have the women’s only record).

Whilst Jepchirchir has continued to perform others have stolen the headlines. Two of those have been her teammates in Tokyo. Ruth Chepngetich, the World Marathon Champion from Doha in 2019 ran 2.17.08 in Dubai in the same year. That performance moved her to fourth on the Marathon all time list. Brigid Kosgei heads it. Her 2.14.04 from Chicago in 2019 is a mind-boggling feat of marathon running. Such superlative achievements mean Peres Jepchirchir will not be the Olympic favourite.

Rivals faltering?

Brigid Kosgei doesn’t yet seem to have reached her imperious best. She finished fifth in April’s Istanbul Half Marathon (66:01) and sixth in the Kenyan trials over 10,000m. Whilst still the London Marathon champion from October 2020, she does not yet look at her peerless best.

Ruth Chepngetich continues to display startling form over the half marathon and in April broke the world record by running 64:02 in Istanbul. She suffered a slight blip in 2020, coming third in London but for my money may be Jepchirchir’s greatest challenge.

Tokyo build up

Slipping under the radar may suit Jepchirchir and she comes into 2021 in a rich vein of form. Her latest outing was the Valencia marathon. That day she ran away from a world class field to become the fifth fastest female marathon runner of all time. Just six weeks before was her second world half marathon title.

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Peres Jepchirchir wouldn’t have made the team had these Olympics occurred in 2020. Her 2.23.50 best was some way off the best Kenya could offer. Now she is on the start line and heads their with a genuine opportunity for Olympic gold.

Enjoyed our piece on Peres Jepchirchir and her bid for Olympic glory? Share and check out our full race preview.

Featured images “World Half Marathon Championships 2016” by Sum_of_Marc is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Keni Harrison, a lesson in resilience

In our obsession with medal tables and Olympic titles, it is easy to forget the achievement in just getting to a Games. Being at the Olympics needs to be earned and sometimes being the fastest who ever lived isn’t credit enough. Few will know that more than hurdler Kendra “Keni” Harrison.

America’s next great hurdling hope

In 2016 Keni Harrison came into the year as America’s second best 100m hurdler. No mean achievment in light of the nation’s powerhouse status in global sprinting but no precursor of what was to come. After an indoor season in which she threatened a breakthrough, the Tenessee native moved outdoors and proceeded to turn the event on its head.

A season opener in Georgia saw her run 12.36, the fifth fastest American of all time. By the end of the May there were only two in world history who had ever run quicker. Her 12.24 was the fastest in the world for 28 years and a startling emergence for America’s next great hope. After winning the Pre Classic, she followed it with two further Diamond League wins. By the time of the trials she hadn’t lost outdoors all season. Each time against some of the best in the world.

“Just make the team”

Returning to Eugene, the same track where she had come within touching distance of the world record, the question on everyone’s lips? Just how fast would Harrison run?

The American’s goal was far different. “Just make the team” she later recalled in an interview with Ato Bolden. Things got off to a good start, running 12.57 to streak away from the Bejiing Olympic Champion Dawn Harper-Nelson in her heat. In her semi she did enough, coming second to qualify for the final. Under thirteen seconds lay between Harrison and the Olympic Games.

In the final, drawn in lane two, Harrison gets off to her customary explosive start. She finds herself second at the first hurdle. There she stays for the first six before four alongside her rise for the seventh in front. Harrison recalls the moment she knew she wasn’t going to make the team. “Just get me out of this race.” Three seconds later it was over and so was her Olympic dream.

Revenge served warm

Three weeks passed and Harrison headed to London. The top three in Eugene lined up against her once more. Just a matter of weeks till those same three would make up the podium in Rio. Barely twelve seconds later, those three were in her wake as she crossed the line. Harrison had run 12.20 and had broken one of athletic’s oldest world records.

The world’s greatest, the fastest hurdler that had ever lived, in the form of her life would be watching her compatriots from home. Such an experience may make one bitter. Lamenting a system that doesnt lead to the world’s finest competing in its greatest competition. The USA’s three past the post system has always been a point of, at minimum, discussion. But it is to Keni Harrison’s credit that she has neither bitterness, nor anger just disappointment.

I think it’s fair. You’ve got to be able to perform when it counts.

Keni Harrison to Ato Bolden in 2016.

Such heartbreak can be scalding and when it is one that isn’t in isolation it becomes hard to not consider a pattern. When the going gets tough and it is all on the line do I really have what it takes? To say such thoughts can’t have passed Harrison’s mind would value perceived resilience over reality. When you are that good, how can anyone beat you but yourself?

The Olympic trials were one of a number of setbacks for Harrison. An individual whose talent has stretched to the 400m hurdles and has rarely been in question in either event. As a collegiate, representing Kentucky she entered the NCAA as the fastest in the field over 400 hurdles. She would finish second, some way below her best. In 2015, her first appearance at a major champs, she false started thus exiting the World Championships in the first round.

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Harrison admits she struggled to deal with the change from being what she describes as an “alright hurdler” to the number one, putting pressure on herself and having difficulty learning to deal with the new found press interest. Throughout her career she has had to deal with fresh challenges.

The first of these she overcame. Returning to the trials one year later she would win in Sacromento to book her World Championship place. Backing it up with Diamond League wins in London and Monaco and running 12.28 to win in Székesfehérvár once more she would head to a competition as hot favourite.

In London she would would win her heat, advance from the semis but finish fourth in the final. Sally Pearson’s winning time was one Harrison had bettered seven times that season. But once more like Eugene twelve months prior she was stoic. Preferring to take pride in a first global final Harrison vowed she would come back stronger. Fighting talk but words laced with disappointment.

A barrier broken

Harrison’s journey is one of unwavering stubborn resilience. One that doesn’t count itself by medals won but of times where she has refused to give up. Each time she towed the line, more often than not the favourite and each time she came back. She tried again. Fundamentally Keni Harrison never lost the belief that she can do better.

In 2018 she did. Harrison’s last appearance in a World Indoor final had seen her reach the final as the second fastest in the field. She hit a hurdle and finished eighth. But in Birmingham she took to her blocks once more, dipped for the line and broke the Championship record. The best in the world was the World Indoor Champion. A block, if there was one had been emphatically smashed.

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18 months later she puts her hands to the line once more. This time only the third fastest that year she took silver for her first outdoor medal. Her clap on the back of her compatriot and winner Nia Ali, a genuine congratulations to a competitor who had deprived her of what some may perceive her greatest moment. But Harrison had achieved where previously she hadn’t. She had been the best she could be on that day and in that it was clear to see the satisfaction.

Olympic redemption

Finally here she is in Tokyo, business unfinished. No longer the favourite, now the challenger. In her semifinal, if ever there was a time to let the occassion get to her it was then. Technical issues in the blocks from the organisers, a yellow card for Tiffany Porter. Drawn out minutes of contemplation. And yet as the time passed, as the glitches kept coming there seemed a calmness to Harrison. A deathly stare down the track a deep breath and a languid kneeling to the blocks. 12.51 seconds later she had hurdled her way to an Olympic final, running within three tenths of a second of her season best and has given herself the chance.

When Keni Harrison once more takes to her blocks, bidding for Olympic glory, she will know one thing. Such a place is never given, always earned. Jasmine Camacho-Quinn will head into tomorrow’s final as the Olympic record holder, knowing it is her race to lose. Keni Harrison will beleive it is hers to win.

Featured image “File:Kendra Harrison Jenaragon95.jpg” by jenaragon94 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The rise and rise of Stewart McSweyn

Five years ago Stewart (Stewie) McSweyn was watching the Olympics from the comfort of his sofa. Whilst his compatriots were soaking in the atmosphere of Rio De Janeiro, McSweyn had run his final race of the summer. A win in the British Milers Club 3,000m Steeplechase in Solihull. A long and tiring season in which the Australian had chased the Olympic standard had come to a humble end. 121 different steeplers ran quicker than him that year.

If McSweyn needed perspective, it won’t have been hard to find. McSweyn hails from King Island off the coast of Tasmania, a sparsely populated outpost where there are more sheep than people.

Growing up on an island with less than 2,000 inhabitants leans to a certain degree of introspection. To be at one with one’s thoughts. And pondering his 2016 season it won’t have been hard to see the positives.

At the start of the season McSweyn had opened the season in 8.50.24, almost twenty seconds from the standard. In every single race he improved, until he came within five seconds in Sweden. He had gone from national class steepler to reasonably robust in an international field.

With qualification one year later to the World Champs he could have even seen validation, though just two tenths of a second sliced off his best and 14th in his heat clearly rankled.

Change of event

Such an achievement, a debut at a major champs may have been a cause for celebration for some. A validation that things were things were going right but for McSweyn and his coach, Nic Bideau, much grander plans were blooming.

In July of 2017 McSweyn had given his first glimpse of what was to come. Racing at the Morton Games in Dublin he comprehensively beat Collis Birmingham and a competitive field, taking six seconds out of his compatriot over the final 300m to run a breakthrough 13.19 over 5000m. It was a World Champs qualifying standard and an almost fifteen second personal best. Just six days later he ran 3.55.97 in the mile in Cork. It was enough to signal a change of focus.

Brussels breakthrough

In the summer of 2018 McSweyn really turned it up a notch. Fifth in the Commonwealth Games 5000m in April he only got quicker, running 3.34.82 over 1500 metres in June and then 13.05.23 in Brussels over 5000 in August. With his final performance, as far as Australians went, only the great Craig Mottram had run quicker. McSweyn was knocking on the door of world class.

McSweyn’s breakthrough snuck under the radar by virtue of there being eleven men in front of him in Brussels. Getting closer he was still a way off the world’s best. And still that continued into 2019, despite ever increasing leaps up the world rankings. In Monaco and Paris over 1500m both times he ran 3.31.81. Both times he finished 8th.

Quietly moving up McSweyn had progressed consistently and clearly. His stock only short because at some time surely it must hit a ceiling. When he exited the Doha World Champs in the semifinals of 1500m more people noticed him falling short than the clear progress he had made. Twelfth in the 5000m final more in that vein.

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Entering the established elite

Yet it is in Stewart McSweyn’s ability to defy limits that he has finally broken through to respected contender. A 2020 where he front ran 3.30.51 to win the Doha Diamond League the breakout in September, but one that had been in the making for a number of years. That he pushed on from there can come as no shock.

7.28.02 in Rome to take four full seconds off the Australian record. 3.29.51 in Monaco to become the first Australian under 3.30. 3.48.37 to run the fastest mile the world has seen in seven years. Like McSweyn himself, the superlatives are unlimited.

Since 2020 he has finished outside the top three only three times in nineteen races. Nine of those races were Diamond Leagues. He has played out the Olympic final on many a stage.

It is a far cry from his youth, running around his family farm, through the luscious greens, rolling hills and rain packed trails. Who would have thought that the “Mayor of King Island” could be within touching distance of the finest on the planet?

That is the reality. Five years on from his win in Solihull, McSweyn heads to Tokyo, not as a man with the standard but as one of the few who sets it. He has every chance of Olympic glory.

Enjoy more like this? Check out our Tokyo Previews of his events below.

Featured image “DOH10087 kimeli reeksen 5000m” by babbo1957 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Yulimar Rojas, Venezuela’s first athletics gold medallist?

To say the reigning triple jump world champion has talent will come as a surprise to no-one. To note it could have come in a number of sports may do. Then again with Yulimar Rojas it probably still doesn’t.

Early life

Rojas, Venezuela’s athletics superstar was born in its capital Caracas but moved at an early age to its Caribbean coastline and the city of Puerto La Cruz. A city tied to the fortunes of the oil for which much of the Venezuelan economy depends, the nineties and early noughties were a time of relative prosperity and with it investment in sport. Home to professional baseball, basketball and of course football, Puerto La Cruz also put money into athletics. The Complejo Deportivo Simon Bolívar was built and provided competitive facilities for the region’s athletes.

It was opportune timing for the city. Yulimar Rojas, her stepfather, Pedro Zapata, her mother Yulexcis Rodríguez and her six siblings moved to a modest farm in the neighbourhood of Pozuelos. To a small farm which has since been washed away by the floods and wind which always threatened its existence.

From the tarmac to the track

Zapata recalls that Rojas was just seven when she started getting interested in sport, playing pelotica de goma, a street game where one person hits a rubber ball with their hand and tries to get it past the group in front, kickingball (a mixture of football and baseball) and just races up and down the streets against neighbours.

Zapata and Rodríguez decided to harness the energy, taking her to the Simón Bolívar complex, a mile or so from the barrio, a once-impressive sporting set up which was slowly decaying through a lack of funding (see the runway as it stands below). At first she was most interested in volleyball. Inspired by the Venezuelan team who had just qualified for Bejiing, she came to play that sport before athletics coaches noticed she might have talent elsewhere and brought her onto the track.

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It is fair to say their assessment was right. It just wasn’t clear in what event she had the most of it. Thus began Rojas’s travels through Venezuela and slowly but surely further afield. Always accompanied by her mother, with her stepfather looking after the other siblings, they would borrow money in order to pursue Rojas’s dreams and spend weeks away from home.

Multi-discipline South American champion

In 2011, aged fifteen she won the South American Junior Championships in the high jump, clearing 1.78m. The next year she did the same but in the 100m hurdles, running 14.81 seconds. Rojas was fast becoming a multi-eventer extraordinaire but still hadn’t tried the sport that would announce herself as the world’s best.

In 2013 Rojas cleared 1.87m in the high jump, a then South American Junior record and also won the Pan-American Youth Championships in the same event. She was one of the world’s best junior athletes and yet already her coach Jesús Tuqueque Velasquez was thinking she may be even better in something else.

That year she got closer to her best event, clearing 6.23m in the long jump. The following year she would head to the World Junior Champs in Eugene and finish eleventh in that discipline’s final. She would also throw her hand at a new event, the results of which were promising. Velásquez recalled in a recent conversation with El Pais of the first time they tried out the triple jump. Rojas jumped 12.70m without any real instruction in training.

In her first year doing the triple Rojas would jump 13.65m, doubling up in the World Junior Champs (she failed to qualify for the final) and capping her first campaign in triple jumping by picking up the South American U23 title.

It was reassurance enough and in 2015 Rojas and Velásquez committed to both the long and triple jump, her performances in the later slowly super ceding the former. As a triple-jumper she was fourth in the Pan-Am champs, her first as a senior. She jumped 14.20m, less than fifteen months from her debut in the event. Only sixteen athletes in the world jumped further that year.

The best in the world

By the end of 2016 there was only one and Yulimar Rojas was the world indoor champion. The rise and rise of Yulimar Rojas at the time seemed spectacular. A twenty-year old high jumper transformed into one of the world’s greatest triple jumpers. Her Rio De Janeiro Olympic silver that summer was the first athletics medal by a Venezuelan since 1952. Her achievements were staggering.

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By the standards of what came next, you could almost contest it was a blip. Two World Championship titles, another World Indoor title in 2018 and the second furthest jumper in history. Inessa Kravet’s once untouchable 1995 best within her grasp, only seven centimetres away. In Tokyo that could go but the one she will be looking for most is an unwanted one. If she can cement her supremacy in Japan she will become Venezuela’s first ever athletics gold medallist. Such is the calibre of Rojas, they may never have a greater chance.

Rojas’s impact on Venezuela cannot be underestimated, despite her current residence in Spain. In a time of struggle she has flown their flag on the international stage. And should she win gold in Tokyo there will be another one flown. A proud member of the LGBTQ+ community Rojas describes her battle to the top as “a leap for love and life to be respected.”

A volleyball player turned high jumper, now dominating in a different discipline it is hard to think of any athlete more deserving of respect.

The women’s triple jump kicks of a 11.05am UK Time on Friday 30 July, with the final 12.15 on Sunday.

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Featured image “2016_rio_15_08_102” by Catholympique is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Callum Hawkins may be Team GB’s Sapporo surprise

Scotland’s Callum Hawkins is Great Britain & Northern Ireland’s great Olympic marathon hope and with good reason. Twice in successive major championships the man from Renfrewshire has come within a whisker of a global medal. In London in 2017 he ran through the pack, closing with every step from 30k but ultimately running out of tarmac. At the 40k mark he lay 59 seconds off Tamirat Tola in silver, by the end the margin was just 28. A ninth place in Rio and just twelve months later a fourth in a World Championships.

When Doha came around two years later few tipped him. With temperatures at 29*C we had been here before and it had ended cruelly. On the Gold Coast in April 2018 Hawkins was 2 minutes 17 seconds clear of Australia’s Michael Shelley with 40km completed. By elite standards he could almost crawl his way to gold. That day even that he couldn’t, collapsing by the side of road ruined by heat exhaustion.

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Doha would be hotter and that would surely not play to the Scotsman’s hands. How wrong we were. Seventeen seconds back at 35k Hawkins caught and passed the front group. Through 40k he led a five man group who would contest the medals. Hawkins closed hard, three others closed harder and once more he would have to settle for fourth, six seconds from bronze.

How fast do you have to run to win an Olympic medal?

By modern standards Hawkins is unusual as a marathon man, chasing global medals over fast times and big city wins. Since Doha he has competed in just one city marathon, London in 2019 where he earned his personal best. And yet despite this only two Brits have ever run faster than Hawkins 2.08.14 best, Sir Mo Farah and former world record holder Steve Jones.

On a global stage it is less impressive, 189 men have run faster since 2019 and 512 in history but tradition tells us that fast times and Olympic medals don’t always match up.

With the exception of Sammy Wanjiru’s electrifying Olympic record rarely will an athlete make one long bid for Olympic glory. The stakes are simply too high. With a measured race up front Hawkins bid for an Olympic medal could grow that bit stronger.

Whilst the time required to win Olympic gold has got quicker, it has tended to lag the world record at that time by on average 4.00% since 1992. The bronze medal lags by on average by 5.08%.

YearGold Time AthleteSilver Time AthleteBronze Time AthleteWR at the Time 
19922.13.23Hwang Young-Cho2.13.45Koichi Morishita2.14.00Stephan Freigang2.06.50 (Belayneh Dinsamo)
19962.12.36Josia Thugwane2.12.39Lee Bong-Ju2.12.44Erick Wainaina2.06.50 (Belayneh Dinsamo)
20002.10.11Gezahegne Abera2.10.31Erick Wainaina2.11.10Tesfaye Tola2.05.42 (Khalid Khannouchi)
20042.10.55Stefano Baldini2.11.29Meb Keflezighi2.12.11Vanderlei de Lima2.04.55 (Paul Tergat)
20082.06.32Samuel Wanjiru2.07.16Jaouad Gharib2.10.00Tsegay Kebede2.04.26 (Haile Gebreselassie)
20122.08.01Stephen Kiprotich2.08.27Abel Kirui2.09.37Wilson Kipsang2.03.38 (Patrick Makau)
20162.08.44Eliud Kipchoge2.09.54Feyisa Lilesa2.10.05Galen Rupp2.02.57 (Dennis Kimetto)
Gold Medal Differential Between World Record (at that time)Silver Medal Differential between World Record (at that time)Bronze Medal Differential between World Record (at that time)
19925.16%5.45%5.65%
19964.55%4.59%4.65%
20003.57%3.83%4.35%
20044.80%5.00%5.82%
20081.69%4.47%4.47%
20123.55%4.84%4.84%
20164.70%5.80%5.80%
Average4.00%4.86%5.08%

Taking the current world record (Eliud Kipchoge’s 2.01.39) we could on average estimate that this year’s winner will run somewhere approaching 2.06.31, enough to take Wanjiru’s record by just one second. To earn bronze we could expect a time of somewhere around 2.07.50.

Predicted Gold Medal TimePredicted Silver Medal Time Predicted Bronze Medal Time 
Tokyo 20202.06.312.06.532.07.50

Whilst this estimate is rudimentary it does show us one thing. A bronze medal could be within Hawkins’ grasp. To seize it he will have to run the race of his life, something he has done several times before. Whilst down on paper, Hawkins has demonstrated he has the ability to run faster.

Callum Hawkins’ 2021 build-up

Hawkins’ 2021 has been quiet with only one goal in mind. Some pacing work in Scotland and the British Marathon Trials (where he was already pre-selected) have been accompanied by warm weather training in Pollença, Majorca. When it hasn’t been Spain, his garage has served its purpose through a treadmill and a couple of electric heaters, a low cost alternative to high performance heat chambers. Little social media, virtually no press, Hawkins is benefitting from an audience looking elsewhere, something which will continue in Japan.

With the men’s marathon due to take place in Sapporo, Hawkins will return to the country with fond memories. It was in Marugame to the south where he first announced himself to an international audience, winning the Half Marathon in 60.00 to break the Scottish record. And it will be on the island of Hokkaido where he hopes to cement that status. With a Kenyan and Ethiopian team packed full of world-class talent, they may be looking inward for their greatest challenge. If they do Hawkins may well make it third time lucky and snatch that global medal.

On Saturday 7 August at 23.00 British time, switch on the TV and find out if he does.

For Callum Hawkins and all the other Olympic contenders, check out our preview below.

Featured image “Hawkins and Griffiths” by Rayonick is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Remember the name, Luvo Manyonga

On 13th August 2016 a twenty-five year old from Paarl in the Western Cape of South Africa stood at the end of a runway. A camera to his right and 130 feet of polymetric rubber in front of him. All around him a dark Rio de Janeiro night. The scattered glow of stadium floodlights and flittering phone cameras piercing the night sky. A lively din reverberating around the arena. One solemn stare into the distance.

It was the fifth round of the men’s long jump final at the thirty-first Olympiad and Luvo Manyonga was in unchartered territory. Just one round before Manyonga, all in green with yellow and white stripes down the side, had leaped further than ever before. 8 metres, 28 centimetres, a personal best by two centimetres and enough to take the lead with just two more rounds to jump.

Manyonga begins his run, powerfully striding down the runway, momentum gathering with each stride. He jumps, hangs and flies through the air, crashing back down to earth barely two metres from the edge of the pit. Sand flying, he can’t get out quick enough, bouncing up and out of the pit.

A purposeful glance behind him to a crater he’s created. A walk turns to a strut before a deathly stare turns to a beaming smile. He has just jumped 8 metres 37 centimetres, a nine centimetre improvement and a dagger to the hearts of the athletes in his wake. He gestures to the crowd, lifts his arms to the sky and draws his hands over his bib. Remember the name, Luvo Manyonga.

Minutes later he sits beside the track. Arms propping him up, the cameras stalking the champion elect. Just three men remain to jump. It is Jeff Henderson of the USA who takes his turn. As his pace accelerates down the runway and the man from Arkansas flies through the sky, Manyonga’s arms no longer prop him up. He lies back to the track, eyes to the sky knowing the American may well have stolen his Olympic gold. The time passes, the distance is measured and it’s 8 metres 38 centimetres. Just one centimetre better. Gold has eluded Manyonga.

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London 2017

Fast forward one year and Manyonga is at a major championships once more. This time the Olympic stadium in Stratford, for the 2017 World Championships. Many things have changed. No longer is he an unfancied contender. He sits as the world leader and the African record holder, having jumped 8.65m in April, the longest in the world for almost a decade. If pressure sits heavy on the South African it is difficult to see.

A foul in the first round for Manyonga is followed by an 8.37m jump by his greatest challenger. Another American, this time by the name of Jarrion Lawson.

Manyonga has to respond. He gestures once more to the crowd. They return the favour. He stares down the runway once more, breaths and starts to run. His left leg hits the white board. He springs and both legs fly through the air, each pedalling in a mid-air fight for control. He lands, he turns and he lingers. Another crater and a casual saunter to his coach. He has jumped 8.48m and whilst he doesn’t yet know it, has become the world champion.

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Turning back the clock

A story like that isn’t an unusual one, indeed it is one we have heard many times before. The crowning of a champion a resilient response to a crushing defeat, one that in many ways make the championship won all the more befitting of its title. But for Luvo Manyonga that isn’t the least of it.

Manyonga’s journey in elite level athletics started many years before, first in 2010 by winning the World U20 Championships and then a year later with a fifth place in the senior edition in Daegu. The London Olympic Games were calling.

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Manyonga grew up in the Mbekweni township in the north of Paarl. Paarl itself sits around 50 kilometres to the northeast of Cape Town and is a town, like many, of contrasts. The nearby vineyards and manicured greens of Stellenbosch and Franschoek to its south. The Val de Vie estate with its world class golf course and spectacular polo club.

The World Bank estimates South Africa to be the most inequal society on the planet, according to their Gini coefficient. Wine, golf and polo aren’t pursuits available to those in Mbekweni and some have found other ways to spend their time.

An epidemic in the Western Cape

A study in the South African Medical Journal in 2016 interviewed around 10,000 Grade 8 students in the Western Cape, with a mean age of 14. 5% admitted to having used methamphetamine, or “tik” as it’s colliqually known. Of those 65% had used it within the last month. Use of the drug has been described as an epidemic and one readily available across the Cape. Various sources say a hit of the drug can cost as little as R 20 (equivalent of £1).

Being a world class athlete does not make one immune. Somewhere along the line use turned to addiction and aged twenty-one in April 2012 Manyonga put a self-inflicted hold on his Olympic ambitions, failing a test for methamphetamine. The South African Institute for Drug-Free Sport (SAIDS) saw his circumstances as mitigating enough to reduce a normal two-year ban to eighteen months.

Manyonga returned in December 2013 coaxed into a comeback by amongst others his coach at the time, Mario Smith. He competed once in Stellenbosch and then once more in Cape Town in early 2014. The target for his major return? The Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in August.

Those Games never came, denied the opportunity by an administrative mistake despite holding the qualifying standard.

Things got worse for Manyonga, still in the midst of addiction. In June of that year, Smith was killed in a car accident. Manyonga dressed up for the funeral but as told in Luke Alfred’s poignant piece, “the Impossibility of Loving Luvo“, never made it. He missed the train, derailed by friends with whom he shared some of the drug.

Those events and the months that followed were very nearly the end of Luvo Manyonga, at least how the public now knows him. Leaving the sport, jetissoned by sponsors and rudderless, he didn’t jump again that year. He didn’t the next either. Addiction was a far greater challenge.

Charting Luvo’s return

Not all abandoned Luvo and one of them was John McGrath, an Irishman who had settled in the Western Cape, having initially come for a holiday in 2008. In 2013 he was coaching at a tug of war competition in Colombia and encountered representatives of the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc). In it they talked about Luvo, McGrath himself running a gym in Paarl. A former strongman, he knew little of the world of athletics but sought out Manyonga.

Together they plotted Luvo’s way out, a slow imperfect one that featured many relapses. As Manyonga’s mother said to Donald McRae for the Irish Times back in 2016:

“he looked after Luvo when nobody but his family wanted him. When Luvo was on drugs, John took care of him.”

Joyce Manyonga to Donald McRae

Whilst Manyongo contests McGrath’s influence, clearly, slowly they won others over too. After Alfred’s piece made national headlines Sascoc eventually moved Luvo out of Mbekweni and into Pretoria. They found him a new coach in Neil Cornelius and Manyonga’s Olympic and World Championship story was written. The comeback was complete. The movie had its final chapter.

Such a brief summary will never do justice to Luvo Manyonga’s story and such picture-postcard endings never tell the truth of what is a constant battle. As he attested to McRae back then:

“I will be a recovering addict the rest of my life and, as a (former) user there are so many triggers there”.

One such trigger you can attest is a global pandemic.

Back at square one

In 2021 here we are, gearing for an Olympic Games where Manyonga was to claim gold, banish the heartache of Rio and inspire millions with the ultimate victory over his demons. Instead he is serving a four year ban for failing to comply on three occassions with the anti-doping whereabouts regime.

It is the culmination of fears that have abounded ever since being fined for failing to comply with South African COVID-19 regulations. Not because of any stance on the pandemic but because of where the arrest took place, Stellenbosch. After years in Pretoria and then Port Elizabeth, Manyonga had returned west.

Few would deny Manyonga takes drugs, but perhaps fewer would say these are in anyway performance enhancing.

His ban due to expire in December 2024, a year in which Luvo will turn thirty-three, Manyonga will be thirty-seven at the next available Olympic Games.

Manyonga’s memory in elite level athletics will be as the man with the beaming smile that lit up Rio and that reached the top one year later. His memory outside it, that is still one he has the power to write himself. Remember the name? Don’t worry Luvo, we will struggle to forget.

An Olympic title may not be possible but that is an irrelevance and one few fans want for him. Health and happiness are much fonder prizes. It would a fitting reward for those two August nights where the South African gave us so much. It is only right he receives something in return.

Featured image “Team SA arrives from the Rio Olympics, 23 Aug 2016” by GovernmentZA is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Tokyo previews – Women’s Marathon

The subsequent banning of Jemima Sumgong will mean Tokyo crowns a new women’s marathon champion. World record holder Brigid Kosgei heads a Kenyan team featuring three of the five fastest women of all time. Israel will hope to have their first Olympic medallist in athletics and an Ethiopian trio will ensure the Tokyo field rivals any major marathon. Here’s our women’s marathon preview for Tokyo.

Schedule

Friday 6 August 23:00 UK Time (Final)

Fastest times since 2019

Ranking since 2019Time AthleteCountry
102:14:04Brigid KosgeiKenya
202:17:08Ruth ChepngetichKenya
302:17:16Peres JepchirchirKenya
402:17:41Worknesh DegefaEthiopia
502:17:45Lonah Chemtai SalpeterIsrael
602:18:30Roza DerejeEthiopia
702:18:33Azmera AbrehaEthiopia
802:18:35Birhane DibabaEthiopia
902:18:40Joyciline JepkosgeiKenya
1002:18:52Vivian Jepkemoi CheruiyotKenya

British interest

Britain send a full contingent to Tokyo through Steph Davis, Jess Piasecki and Steph Twell. All three rank highly on the British all time list at ninth, third and sixth respectively. Davis won impressively at the British trials in 2.27.16 and showed potential to improve. Jess Piasecki ran 2.25.38 back in 2019 to win in Florence and Steph Twell has run 2.26.40. They will need more to challenge for the medals but are one of the most competitive trios Britain has sent in years.

The favourites

Brigid Kosgei should start favourite for the Olympic gold. She ran 2.14.04 to win in Chicago in 2019 and beat Paula Radcliffe’s world record. That said her year so far has not been quite as emphatic, coming sixth in the Kenyan trials over 10,000m (32.18.90) and fifth in the Istanbul half marathon (1.06.01).

The winner in Istanbul? Her own teammate, Ruth Chepngetich whose 2.17.08 best over the marathon came in winning the Dubai Marathon in 2019. Her 1.04.02 run in Istanbul was good enough to break the world record and shows some impressive form.

It is ludicrous to think that the third member of the Kenyan team is the fifth best of all time and the reigning two-time world half-marathon champion. Peres Jepchirchir, the former world record holder in that event last raced in Valencia in December 2020 where she won the race in 2.17.16. A strong case can be made that she heads to Tokyo as favourite.

Lornah Chematai Salpeter has a chance to claim Israel’s first athletics medal at an Olympic games. She won in Tokyo in March 2020. Such an experience stands her in good stead and much will be made of how she adapts to the conditions. In Doha, in hot conditions she had to pull out, coming into that race as one of the favourites.

The Ethiopian team is Roza Dereje, Birhane Dibaba and Tigist Girma and all have chance of competing at the front end of the field.

Tigist Girma won the Ethiopian trials (over 35k) but was only sixth in Valencia in 2020 albeit in an impressive 2.19.56. Whilst she could compete there are other athletes with perhaps greater credentials. One of those may be her teammate Birhane Dibaba who finished second in Tokyo last year but has won twice there in 2015 and 2018. The humidity of Sapporo in August may be a different proposition but her 2.18.35 best puts her in elite company. She was second in the Ethiopian trials.

The final Ethiopian is Roza Dereje. Her latest race outside third in the Ethiopian trials was finishing eighth in Barcelona over the half. She won Valencia in 2.18.30 in 2019 and in Dubai in 2018. She has also won in Shanghai twice.

Others worthy of mention include Helalia Johanes of Namibia who was third in Valencia in 2.19.52 and home favourite Mao Ichiyama. Ichiyama won in Osaka in January in 2.21.11 and also in Nagoya (2.20.29) last year. If others struggle with the humidity, the Japanese record holder could well be there to pick up the scraps.

Our medal prediction

  1. Peres Jepchirchir
  2. Ruth Chepngetich
  3. Mao Ichiyama

Records

WR: 2.14.04 Brigid Kosgei (2019)

OR: 2.23.07 Tiki Gelana (2012 London)

Featured image “Start of the Women’s Marathon in London 2017” by wuestenigel is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Tokyo previews – Men’s Marathon

The Men’s Marathon takes place on the island of Hokkaido to the north of Japan, in the city of Sapporo. Eliud Kipchoge will aim to defend his Olympic title but faces an Ethiopian assault as well as a couple of potential challengers in his own camp. Here’s our men’s marathon preview.

Schedule

Saturday 7 August 23:00 UK Time (Final)

Fastest men’s marathon times since 2019

2021 RankingsTime AthleteCountry
102:01:41Kenenisa BekeleEthiopia
202:02:37Eliud KipchogeKenya
302:02:48Birhanu LegeseEthiopia
402:02:55Mosinet GeremewEthiopia
502:02:57Titus EkiruKenya
602:03:00Evans ChebetKenya
702:03:04Lawrence CheronoKenya
802:03:16Mule WasihunEthiopia
902:03:30Amos KiprutoKenya
1002:03:34Getaneh MollaEthiopia

British interest

Callum Hawkins has finished fourth at the last two world champs and was ninth in Rio. Though his 2.08.14 best would not seem to put him in the mix he has proven himself in championship racing and has a genuine chance of a medal.

Chris Thompson (2.10.52) won the British trials in heart-warming fashion and the 40-year-old will hope for an Olympic swansong. If he can keep himself together, he may surprise many with his placing and a top ten is not off the cards.

Ben Connor was second in the trials and has run 2.11.20. Much will depend on his ability to deal with the still hot and humid conditions.

The favourites

The Olympics launches the unenviable task of Kenya and Ethiopia picking only three athletes each, despite their dominant position in world marathon running.

The Ethiopians

The Ethiopian team is Lelisa Desisa who has won three World marathon majors and is the reigning World Champion from Doha. He has a 2.04.45 best but is largely picked due to his proven ability to win races. His last race was a tenth place finish in Valencia in December 2020.

Shura Kitata was the man to dethrone Eliud Kipchoge at the London Marathon last year and won the Ethiopian trials over 35k with an impressive sprint finish. He has a 2.04.49 best from his second place to Kipchoge in London 2018 but will be gunning for gold.

Sisay Lemma ran 2.03.36 in Berlin in 2019. Though he is the fastest in the Ethiopian team on paper you would suggest he is their least favourite to win gold just due to his relative performances at other races.

The Kenyans

Eliud Kipchoge won 2016 Rio gold and has won six of his seven subsequent official marathons. In that time he has also become the first man to break the 2 hour barrier, albeit unofficial in contrived conditions. His only blemish is an eighth in London last year. He ran 2.04.30 in April to win in Enschede.

Lawrence Cherono has always threatened to breakthrough and was second in Valencia in 2.03.04 in December. The Boston champ from 2019 was second only to Evans Chebet who is not in Tokyo and could provide a real challenge.

The final Kenyan in the squad, Amos Kipruto was third in Doha. Interestingly he was only 18th in his last visit to Japan in the Tokyo marathon. He was fourth in Valencia in 2.03.30.

Ones to watch

Suguru Osako (2.05.59) will be a home favourite and has been third in both Chicago and Boston. Stephen Kiprotich, the Olympic Champion from 2012 is in the Ugandan team but he is unlikely to figure this time around. That said the same could be said in 2012 and he will be alongside Filex Chemongesi (2.05.12 best) and Fred Musobo (2.06.56. best).

Our medal predictions

  1. Eliud Kipchoge
  2. Shura Kitata
  3. Lawrence Cherono

Enjoy our men’s marathon Olympic preview? See all the other events below.

Featured image “Eliud Kipchoge” by MichaelGubi is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Tokyo previews – Women’s 10,000m

One of the Olympic Games most anticipated clashes comes on the final night as world record holders former and present duel in the Tokyo twilight. Here’s our women’s 10,000m preview.

Schedule

Saturday 7 August 11:45 UK Time (Final)

2021 Fastest Times

2021 RankingTimeAthleteCountry
129:01.0Letesenbet GideyEthiopia
229:06.8Sifan HassanNetherlands
329:39.4Gudaf TsegayEthiopia
429:50.8Kalkidan GezahegneBahrain
530:06.0Tsigie GebreselamaEthiopia
630:19.3Tsehay GemechuEthiopia
730:20.8Yalemzerf YehualawEthiopia
830:37.2Irine Jepchumba KimaisKenya
930:37.3Daisy CherotichKenya
1030:45.8Sheila Chepkirui KiprotichKenya

British interest

Jess Judd and Eilish McColgan are the British representation. McColgan is fresh off her 14.28.55 British record over 5000m and edged out Judd in the British trials. Both are doubling up with the 5000m in Tokyo and this will be their second event.

McColgan is a fraction away from her mum Liz’s 30.57.07 Scottish record, which she set in winning the 1991 World Champs in the very same city. Eilish has stated her intention to break the record and if she can a top six finish is not off the cards. Judd’s finishing speed has proven impressive throughout this season, especially in her British Champs win over 5000m.

The favourites

Letsenbet Gidey of Ethiopia is in ridiculous form, winning the Ethiopian trials in a world record 29.01.03, all by herself. To think her Ethiopian teammates in Tokyo, Gebreselama and Gemechu, were a minute back is impressive enough but made ludicrous when considering they became the 14th and 26th fastest athletes of all time in the process. Gidey is only running the 10,000m in Tokyo and finished second in her only previous major champs in Doha 2019. She is also the world record holder in the 5000m.

The woman who beat her that night in Doha? Sifan Hassan, the Dutch phenomenon who unfathomably also won the 1500m in that same championship. She was the 10,000m record holder for all of two days when she ran on the same track as Gidey to win in Hengelo, her 29.06.82 beating the previous record by almost eleven seconds. Hassan’s biggest opposition may be herself, with the World champion currently entered for the 1500, 5000 and 10,000m in Tokyo. One must surely go or else she could be running six races in only nine days. With a 3.51.95 1500m best she will fancy herself running the race in any which way but faces an Ethiopian who will be fresh and full of confidence.

An interesting addition is Hellen Obiri, the 5000m world champion from Doha. She ran the 10,000m there also but could only come fifth. How she will react to the double this time will be the question but she won the Kenyan trials at altitude comfortably in 30.53.60. Having won in Oslo over 5000m she seems to be in good shape and will be in the medal mix in Tokyo. She is joined by Irene Cheptai who ran 30.51.39 in Stockholm and Sheila Chelangat (31.10.37) in the Kenyan team.

Kalkidan Gezahegne of Bahrain ran 29.50.77 in Portugal to put herself in contention for a medal come Tokyo. She came fifth in the 1500m in the Daegu World Championships all the way back in 2011.

Emily Sisson of USA won impressively in the heat at the Olympic trials (31.03.82). That may be a key indicator in the humid conditions of Tokyo and she is just doing the one event in Tokyo.

Other notable mentions include Karoline Bjerkeli Grøvdal of Norway who ran 30.50.84 in Oslo in May. Konstanz Klosterhalfen fits in that bracket but has not raced since clocking 31.01.71 in Texas in February.

Our medal predictions

  1. Sifan Hassan
  2. Letsenbet Gidey
  3. Emily Sisson

Records

WR: 29.01.03 Letesenbet Gidey (2021)

OR: 29.17.45 Almaz Ayana (2016 Rio)

Featured image “Almaz Ayana, Tirunesh Dibaba und Dera Dida (10.000 Meter Lauf) bei den IAAF Leichtathletik-Weltmeisterschaften 2017 in London” by marcoverch is licensed under CC BY 2.0