Athletics Day 1
Welcome to Day 1 of track & field at the Olympics! Or, as it’s known everywhere else in the world, “athletics”. You can consider this intro every day to be a preamble of sorts, loosely based on the Olympic action with some odd tidbits thrown in. Speaking of odd, referring to running as “athletic” is always interesting because a lot of distance runners will join the sport partially due to their lack of coordination forcing them out of more popular ones. Anyway, that’s not important because what you’re really here for is the thing we’ve all been collectively anticipating for an agonizing five years - Olympic track & field.
Day 1 is set to start with a bang. There are a number of loaded events, particular in the mid-distance and distance side that should bring plenty of excitement to primetime. For reference, “Day 1” per the Olympics is technically tonight and tomorrow morning due to the time zone difference. So it occurs on two different days in the US but is all one day of action on the schedule. Moving forward, I’ll be referring to ‘Day X’ as the combination of both sessions.
With all that said, what’s actually taking place?
Men's Steeplechase Heats
The steeplechase is broken into three heats where the top three and next six fastest runners make the final. Unlike most years, 2021 appears to have no immediate favorite in this event. Without the likes of Conselus Kipruto or Evan Jager, the field is more open than it’s ever been. Five men have broken 8:10 this year but none have run faster than 8:07. If there was a favorite, it would likely be Soufiane El Bakkali from Morocco. He was the third place finisher at the World Championships in 2019 and has a knack for being in contention with a lap to go.
East Africa will also have a strong group from Kenya and Ethiopia, with Bikila Tadese Takele (ETH), Abraham Kibiwot (KEN), Getnet Wale (ETH), and Lamecha Girma (ETH) all having broken 8:10 this season. Kenya has historically been dominant in this event but their time may be coming to an end, especially without Kipruto.
On the American side of things, making the final is going to be a critical step. Obviously, you can’t win if you’re not even in the final, but that’s hardly a given for any American in the field. Mason Ferlic has been having the season of his life and put together a huge performance in Eugene to make this team. He sits in eighth for his heat based on his season best mark. Bernard Keter is also in a similar position, with only Hillary Bor being in the top five of his heat. All three should benefit if the pace dawdles, as it often does in championship races. Bor realistically is going to have the best chance of moving on. He has the fastest personal best, the best relative position in his heat, and is slotted in Heat 3, meaning he can chase a top six time at that point. Ferlic and Keter won’t go quietly but their inexperience at the Olympic level makes advancing a tall order.
Women's 800 Heats
The 800 might be the most exciting (non-relay) event in track. It’s the perfect duration where tactics have a meaningful impact but not long enough where even the average Joe at home will get bored. Runners also just look “fast”, which certainly plays into the public appeal.
This event kicks off with a whopping six heats, where the top three plus six fastest will make the semifinal. It’s a little weird that almost half of each heat makes the next round but there’s only so many ways you can structure heats with this event.
Without sounding biased towards Americans, all eyes will be on Athing Mu. The 19 year-old is the current world leader in the event and the fastest rising star since Patrick Mahomes. Mu lit up the NCAA over both 400 and 800 meters in 2021, opting not to race the 800 at either Indoor or Outdoor Nationals. Her coach viewed saving herself for the Trials as a better approach long-term and it certainly has paid off.
My original hesitation on Mu leading into the Trials was how she would handle rounds against elite competition. Well, she made me look like a fool. Mu breezed through in Eugene and will be a legitimate contender for the gold here. Again, if we’re raising concerns, it’s that she’s facing even better talent in more tactical settings… but based on what we’ve seen thus far, that doesn't seem to matter.
Amazingly, Mu is barely the best 19 year-old in the event. Keely Hodgkinson of Great Britain has run 1:57 this year and is another young star looking for her first Olympic medal. She won the European Championships in this event back in March and has been having a stellar 2021. Her 1:57 was also only run at the beginning of July, setting her up nicely for Tokyo.
Outside of these two, the event is absolutely stacked. Rose Mary Almanza (CUB) has run 1:56 this year, as has Jeema Reekie (GBR). Ajee Wilson (USA) and Raevyn Rogers (USA) are both experienced on the world stage and will be looking to follow Mu to success. Workua Getachew (ETH) and Natoya Goule (JAM) have been flying under the radar but should easily move on to the semifinals.
There are so many names in this event it’s hard to cover them all but rest assured, these are six heats you don’t want to miss.
Men's 10k Final
Back in 2012, Galen Rupp medaling in this event was somewhat of a revelation in American distance running. The idea the United States could run with the Kenyans and Ethiopians seemed a bit of a stretch until Rupp ran into the record books. Now, in 2021, there are three who could follow in those footsteps.
The Bowerman duo of Woody Kincaid (USA) and Grant Fisher (USA) will be doing everything in their power to get to that final lap. We’ve seen these two (and other BTC runners) show they can close out a race like no one else, highlighted by Kincaid’s blistering finish at the Trials. If these two can hang for the first 24 laps, anything can happen.
How realistic is that? Going off personal bests, Fisher and Kincaid sit 12th and 13th in the field. They’re over a minute behind the top man, Joshua Cheptegei, who happens to be the world record holder. On paper, the East Africans could easily turn this into a time trial of sorts and likely break a bunch of men in the process. Along with Cheptegei, Jacob Kiplimo (UGA), Yomif Kejelcha (ETH), Selemon Barega (ETH), and Rhonex Kipruto (KEN) are all among the favorites. So what’s going to stop them from running away with it?
At the time of race, the weather in Tokyo is slated to be 80 degrees with 81% humidity and scattered thunderstorms. Have you ever gone running when it’s 80 and that high of humidity? Living in the Midwest, that’s a pretty typical summer day but let me tell you, it sucks. I don’t enjoy running easy on those days, let alone trying to run sub-27 for 10k. So the idea that this could become a kickers race is a very realistic possibility.
Keeping that in mind, the other Bowerman athletes in this field also should be in a great spot. Marc Scott (GBR), Mo Ahmed (CAN), and Kieran Tuntivate (THA) are all going to be strong over the last lap(s). Ahmed is the only one from this group I realistically see competing for a medal but the others could be top ten if things go their way.
And of course, as a Minnesota-based group, we’d be remiss to leave out the On Athletics Club man, Joe Klecker. The Colorado alum is from Hopkins, MN, and has been having a huge season in his first year as a professional. Klecker making the team may have surprised some but as someone who has followed his running over the years, it was anything but.
Joe is a true grinder. I remember in high school, seeing Snapchats of his Garmin while out in Colorado where he was cranking out sub-6 pace while not even acclimated. Being from the Midwest, I have the utmost faith that Klecker will be right at home in the Tokyo humidity and it could be a big advantage for someone who comes in on the lower end of the personal best list.
Women's 5k Heats
This event takes place an hour and a half before the men’s 10k, so you can imagine the weather will only be hotter and more humid. In other words, it’s going to be brutal. The qualification system is top five in each heat (two total) and next five fastest women.
In Heat 1, Karissa Schweizer will be leaning on her Midwest roots for a boost in those conditions. Schweizer has the fifth-fastest personal best in the field and like the other BTC runners, tends to close the race well. Given these are only the prelims, that should be key in getting her to the final. Having already run 14:26, Schweizer seems to only be scratching the surface of her potential but her inexperience on the world stage is a little worrisome.
Maybe the favorite in the event, Siffan Hassan of the Netherlands is also in Heat 1. Hassan has been one of the best runners in the world across almost every distance, winning world titles in the 1500 and 10k in 2019. Although Hassan’s season best is only 14:35, she has the closing speed to challenge anyone in the world.
Ethiopia brings the top two runners for Heat 1 in Ejgayehu Taye and Senbere Teferi. They have run 14:14 and 14:15 this year and should have no problem making the final.
Heat 2 is the weaker heat on paper, benefitting the two Americans who will be running it. Elise Cranny has been phenomenal since joining Bowerman Track Club and comes in fifth based on personal best. Right behind her is Rachel Schneider who had a breakthrough race at the Trials to make her first Olympic team. Anyone who follows American running was well acquainted with Schneider and knew it was only a matter of time before she became an Olympian.
The world record holder, Gudaf Tsegay (ETH) will headline Heat 2, having run 14:13 earlier this year. Tsegay is the favorite to win gold. Other big names in this heat include Hellen Obiri (KEN), and Eilish McColgan (GBR).
One other woman to keep an eye on in Heat 2 will be Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi. Niyonsaba was a two-time World Indoor champion in the 800 meters but was forced to move up in distance due to “abnormally high” testosterone levels. To be clear, Niyonsaba did not dope nor fail any tests. Her high levels, as with Caster Semanya, are completely natural. Niyonsaba has a strong chance to make the final after running 14:54 this year.
-The men’s 400 meter hurdles will kick off on Thursday night. The big story here is the potential showdown between newly-minted world record holder Karsten Warholm (NOR) and Rai Benjamin (USA) who ran the, at the time, #2 all-time mark at the US Trials.
-While the women’s 100 starts Thursday night, the rounds are the “Preliminary”, which are prior to the “Heats”. The races will be void of the big name runners in this event.
-The mixed-gender 4x400 preliminary rounds are Friday morning. The concept sounds cool on paper, but the event seems like a “made for TV” product rather than Olympic track & field. Sure, it has some excitement, but it’s also confusing and arguably no more appealing to the general public than the standard 4x400.
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