Who Had The Better Career, Joan Benoit Samuelson or Jenny Simpson?

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By Robert Johnson
April 19, 2020

I’ve always said the best thing about LetsRun.com is you — our visitors, the smartest track and field fans on the planet. I may have to take that back. With only a few hours left in quarterfinal voting in our quest to name the Greatest American Distance Runner of All Time, Jenny Simpson is leading Joan Benoit Samuelson, 52% to 48%. What?

When I first became aware late last night that Simpson was leading Samuelson, I started a thread on the messageboard to see if people thought this was the right result: MB: Has LetsRun nation lost its mind? Jenny Simpson is currently beating Joan Benoit in the voting for Greatest American Ever. Without doing any research, I just assumed Samuelson would destroy Simpson and was shocked. I asked people to try to justify Simpson over Samuelson for me. I wondered if perhaps I was just biased as I remember the 1984 Olympics when I was 11.

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Anyway, today, I’ve read the thread and actually had some time to do a little research. My gut instinct was right. Samuelson should win over Simpson but I can understand why people are voting for Simpson, particularly if they don’t do any research or think about this logically.

The argument for Simpson over Samuelson seems to be this: Simpson has won a lot of medals in a more competitive era. Messageboard poster WinnyTheBish had a great post summarizing the logic one would make for Simpson over Samuelson.

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Two great runners. One is bound to be heart broken. Jenny has been better at a variety of distances on the track, and has 4 times as many medals as Joan. Not to take away from what Joan did, because she was incredible, but Jenny simply was better during a more competitive time period. I chose Jenny simply because she passed the “medal test” and as icing on the cake, has had plenty of “Joannie level” moments in her career. To pretend Jenny isn’t more accomplished in hardware is simply hindrance due to nostalgia. Certainly a tough competition.

A great post. Simpson is indeed fantastic and she’s had an AMAZING career, but she’s never won the big one: Olympic gold. Joanie won the inaugural women’s Olympic marathon. Simpson’s best finish at an Olympics is third.

So in terms of Olympic hardware, which is the most important measuring stick for all runners, there is a huge edge to Samuelson.

“But Simpson’s won so many medals at Worlds,” you say.

Ok. Let’s talk about that. Simpson has won one gold (2011) and two silvers (2013 and 2017) at Worlds. Samuelson won zero medals at Worlds during her career, which isn’t a shock — there was only one World Championships during the prime of her career (1983) and she didn’t compete in it. Now there is a Worlds every other year, so there are way more opportunities for someone to win a medal.

I view winning a major marathon as pretty much equivalent to winning a Worlds medal. Samuelson won three majors besides the Olympics — Boston in 1979 and 1983 and Chicago in 1985. I’m willing to admit the women’s race at ’79 Boston wasn’t that competitive (2:35 winning time), so let’s ignore it. So Simpson won one Worlds gold and two silvers, but Sameulson won two majors.

At ’83 Boston, Samuelson ran 2:22:43 — a time that was 2:45 faster than any woman in history had ever run. At ’85 Chicago, she ran 2:21:21 — just 15 seconds off the world record (it would last almost 22 years as the American record). In comparing Simpson’s Worlds hardware to Samuelson’s major marathon performances, I’m fine if you want to give a slight edge to Simpson because three is bigger than two, but please remember that Samuelson was running historically fast times, which is something Simpson never did. Although asking Simpson to run historically fast times in an event so tainted by drugs may not be fair — remember, the women’s 1500 WR was 3:56 way back in 1976.

WC gold is nice but Olympic gold is better

“But Jenny is competing in a much more competitive era,” you say.

If Simpson hadn’t won a Worlds gold, we’d be laughing at any comparison to Samuelson. So let’s talk about the context of that gold medal in 2011. Do people remember how weak the women’s 1500 was that year? In 2011, ZERO women broke 4:00 all season. Here we are nine years later and that’s laughable to think about.

Simpson was not the world’s best 1500 runner in 2011 — or even America’s best. Morgan Uceny was ranked #1 in the US and world in 2011, and wiped the floor with Simpson at USAs. But Uceny fell in the World Championship final, eliminating Simpson’s biggest threat for gold (for the record, Simpson was ranked #2 in the US and #3 in the world in 2011).

Now, Simpson was World #1 in 2014 and she also was second in 2013. So she has three top 3 world rankings and eight top 10s in her primary event (she also has a 9th and a 5th in the steeple). In the marathon, Samuelson was ranked #3 in the world in 1979, #2 in 1982 and 1983, and #1 in 1984 and 1985. So in her primary event, Samuelson has five top 3 rankings — including two #1s — and seven top 10s (she also has a 4th in the 10,000). Simpson has slightly more top 10s, but in terms of quality, the edge goes to Samuelson. One other thing about Simpson’s 1500 rankings. As great as she’s been over the years, she’s only been ranked #1 in the US three years according to TFN (2013, 2014, and 2017).

All together, Samuelson wins this head-to-head battle. She has a big edge in the #1 category for any runner — Olympic medals — with her gold vs. Simpson’s bronze. She ran historically fast times — something Simpson never did — and she was ranked World #1 twice compared to just once for Simpson. Yes, Simpson won three World Championship medals while Samuelson didn’t win any, but Samuelson won three majors while Simpson didn’t win any of those.

Both are Americans icons who had fantastic careers, but Joan Benoit Samuleson’s career is a little greater in my book.

Who do you think had the better career? Talk about it on our world famous messageboard/fan forum. *MB: Has LetsRun nation lost its mind? Jenny Simpson is currently beating Joan Benoit in the voting for Greatest American Ever.


Have you voted yet? Voting closes at midnight ET.
*
Vote In The Women’s Semifinals Who had the better career: Deena Kastor or Shalane Flanagan, Joan Benoit Samuelson orJenny Simpson?
*Vote In The Men’s Semifinals! Who had the better career: Frank Shorter or Galen RuppBernard Lagat or Jim Ryun

Note: The stat about Simpson only being the US #1 ranked 1500 runner three times in her career was added after publication.


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