‘Get to the front and go faster’. That is Faith Kipyegon explaining her racing strategy in an interview. It may not be complicated, but…
“The nightmare of Eugene has followed him here to Budapest” came the call from Rob Walker in the commentary box as the men’s 1500m drew to a close. Walker was referring to Jakob Ingebrigtsen, the king of the 1500m who once again left the world championships without a crown.
For the second year in a row, Ingebrigtsen, the overwhelming favourite for the global title, was upstaged by one of his British rivals. 12 months ago, it was Jake Wightman; but with Wightman ruled out of this year’s championships due to injury, the duties were passed to Josh Kerr.
The Norwegian and the Scot appeared on the start line in vastly different fashion: Ingebrigtsen maintained an air of confidence, calmly raising his finger when the camera panned to him to show he was number one.
Meanwhile Kerr, with half of his face shielded by his oversized sunglasses, nervously muttered to himself and barely engaged with the camera. But his intentions could not have been clearer. Opting not to wear his team GB kit, and instead donning a replica of the singlet Wightman wore when he stormed to victory in Eugene last year, Kerr’s sole focus was the world title.
When the gun sounded, Ingebrigtsen immediately moved towards the front of the field, and after only 500m was in the lead. For those who have followed his progress over his career, you know this move was uncharacteristic. In all of his successful races we have seen the Norwegian do one of two things: stay out of trouble at the back until the final kick, or run off the front to chase down a time of which only he is capable.
In Budapest, he did neither: staying with the field up the front, but not making any decisive moves. It was this strategy that saw his undoing in Eugene, and it would prove that Budapest would condemn him to the same fate.
No sooner had Ingebrigtsen hit the front did Kerr step out from the pack and steadily move up through the field. Executing an almost identical race to that of his countryman 12 months ago, Kerr was on the shoulder of the Norwegian superstar with 600m to go. As they entered the home straight, the Scot moved to the front and a look of resignation came over Ingebrigtsen.
Kerr crossed the line in 3:29.38, the crowd just as stunned as the winner himself. Such was the favourite’s sense of deflation that he was very nearly caught by Narve Gilje Nordas, his Norwegian teammate and training partner, who finished 0.03 seconds behind Ingebrigtsen for the bronze.
“Those last moments of the race will be engraved on my brain for a very long time’” reflected Kerr after becoming only the third British runner to claim the 1500m world title.
“I knew I had him with about 50m to go…It’s very hard to be the favourite and Jakob has a million things going on with world record attempts and multiple events. For me, this is the be-all-and-end-all. You saw about 16 years of emotion at the end there.”
“You just watched a kid achieve a dream that he has been having for a very long time. It’s crazy that Edinburgh Athletics Club has back-to-back world champions. I know Jake was in the crowd tonight and due respect to him for laying the path for me to follow.”
Ingebrigtsen had less to say, congratulating his British competitor and citing a sore throat as a potential reason for his defeat.
“I’m just not feeling like myself. Of course, [I’m] disappointed, but all credit to Kerr: he did a good race and obviously prepared well.”
So why can’t Ingebrigtsen, who has had an armour of invincibility on him since his last World Championships defeat, win a global title? It seems the Norwegian has psychological troubles pushing into the unknown. We first saw this issue arise when he came up against the once unbeatable Timothy Cheruiyot.
Seemingly destined to forever be the nearly-man to Cheruiyot’s success, the pair clashed 10 times in a four-year period from 2017 – 2021, the result of which was ten consecutive losses for Ingebrigtsen. The Norwegian’s breakthrough finally came at the Tokyo Olympics, and since then the roles have been reversed. It seems that Ingebrigtsen has well and truly overcome whatever was holding him back from beating Cheruiyot; the two have raced six times in the past year, and Ingebrigtsen has comfortably won all of them.
But while he may have bridled the problem with his Kenyan rival, it seems a new mental block has emerged. If the Norwegian is to someday break the oldest record in men’s track running – the 1500m world record – he must find a solution to this problem; interestingly, it is the same problem that the man from whom he is trying to take that very record also suffered.
Long-time spectators of the sport will know the name Hicham El Guerrouj. The fastest man in history over 1500m, and one of the all-time greats of athletics, the Moroccan had no problem picking up world titles, claiming four in a row from 1997 – 2003.
El Guerrouj’s troubles came on the biggest stage of all: The Olympic Games. In both 1996 and 2000, El Guerrouj went to the Olympics as the clear favourite. But it was only in 2004 that the Moroccan, on his final trip to the Games, was able to add a sole 1500m Olympic title to his trophy cabinet.
The 1500m world title has evaded Jakob Ingebrigtsen in a hauntingly similar way that the Olympic crown eluded El Guerrouj. Is the Norwegian on the same path? Will the fastest 1500m runner in the world finally be able to hang that gold medal around his neck at the next World Championships? We’ll have to wait until 2025 to find out.