What About The Sport? Wouldn’t It Be Nice If Donavan Brazier & Bryce Hoppel Raced Each Other Once This Season?
By Jonathan Gault
February 12, 2021
Six months ago in Monaco, Donavan Brazier, the American record holder and reigning world champion at 800 meters, narrowly held off a fast-closing Bryce Hoppel, to win at the famed Herculis meet, 1:43.15 to 1:43.23. It was the race of the year in the 800, and Brazier and Hoppel’s times wound up 1-2 in the 2020 year-end rankings.
Brazier and Hoppel, both 23, are two of America’s most electrifying track & field talents right now. Hoppel is in supreme form. Two weeks ago, he ran 1:44.37 at the second American Track League meet in Fayetteville, Ark., an indoor personal best. The time was just .15 off the American record — held, of course, by Brazier.
The good news for fans of American distance running is that both athletes will have the chance to shine this weekend. The biggest meet of the 2021 US indoor season, the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix in Staten Island, will be held on Saturday, broadcast nationally on NBC from 4-6 p.m. ET. Brazier and Hoppel are both entered.
The bad news?
They’re running different events at the same meet for the second time in two weeks. And it will happen again at a third meet two weeks from now.
At the ATL meet on January 31, Hoppel ran his 1:44.37 in the 800 while Brazier was slated to race the 600 (Brazier later withdrew after a close contact tested positive for COVID-19). On Saturday at NBIGP, Hoppel will run the 1000 and Brazier the 800. And on February 27, at the Texas Qualifier in Austin, Hoppel will contest the 800 while Brazier runs the 1500. In a season without a US indoor championship — and, potentially, no Olympics either — the world’s top two 800m runners, who hail from the same country and will travel to the same meets, will not race each other.
Top stars not racing each other is not a new development in track & field. But that does not make it any less disappointing. So why is this happening?
In this case, I don’t really think it’s because the athletes are scared to face top competition. After all, in two weeks, Brazier is stepping up to face a 1500 field that includes Olympic champion Matthew Centrowitz.
Brazier and Hoppel share an agent, Mark Wetmore, who also happens to be the meet director of the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix. LetsRun.com reached out to him for an explanation.
According to Wetmore, when he was discussing the meet with Hoppel in November, Hoppel requested to run the 1000. He won that event at NBIGP in 2020 and wanted to take a shot at a fast time in 2021 (Hoppel told Track & Field News he wants to break David Torrence‘s 2:16.76 American record).
Brazier was not confirmed for the meet until January. When he indicated to Wetmore that he wanted to run, Wetmore offered the option of racing a 600 or 800.
“The 800 got added when Donavan decided he wanted to run, frankly, which was only in the last few weeks,” Wetmore says. “I mean Donavan, he can run a 1000, I’m sure, but I don’t think it’s his favorite event, let’s say. So we offered a 600 or an 800 for him, whichever he wanted.
“It wasn’t a decision made after Bryce ran so well at Fayetteville. It was decided before that. I don’t think it’s the nature of these two guys to avoid each other. But Bryce has just always wanted to run a fast 1000. That’s what he wanted to do. I don’t think they get a lot of chances to do that. And I think Donavan doesn’t tend toward the 1000. So I think it’s probably that simple.”
According to Wetmore, neither man asked what event the other was racing at the meet.
Overall, the fields at NBIGP are terrific. Two great distance events — a men’s two-mile featuring Morgan McDonald and Eric Jenkins, and a women’s 1500 featuring Colleen Quigley and Nikki Hiltz — won’t even fit in the two-hour TV window. But because there aren’t many indoor opportunities for US-based pros right now, Wetmore felt it was important his meet provide as many as possible.
“We’re having a 60, a 200, a 300, and a 400 for men, just because there are no meets,” Wetmore says. “So many people want to run. And in the women, we’re having a 60, a 300, a 400, and a 500.”
In several of these races, the top athletes are decidedly not ducking each other. US champ Craig Engels will take on 3:29 man Jake Wightman in the 1500 (Centrowitz was initially entered but is no longer on the start list). Michael Norman, competing indoors for the first time in three years, will have his hands full with training partner Rai Benjamin in the 400. And even without Brazier, Hoppel still faces a strong 1000 including World Championship finalist Marco Arop of Canda (1:44 800 pb) and Charlie Grice of Great Britain (3:30 1500 pb). All of these are head-to-head showdowns any meet would be lucky to have.
The Brazier/Hoppel situation isn’t exactly new at NBIGP, however. This is the same meet that, in both 2008 and 2012, featured a women’s 3000 and a women’s 2-mile so that Tirunesh Dibaba and Meseret Defar didn’t have to race against each other. And in 2019, the women’s 500m field was specifically designed for New Balance star Sydney McLaughlin to earn a win in her pro debut.
This is not a problem specific to one meet or one athlete. It is a result of the way track & field is run. Track is not American football, where team schedules are assigned by the league. If the NFL tells the New England Patriots they’re playing the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 1, they can’t ask to play the Jacksonville Jaguars instead because it would provide a gentler start to their season. And track is not golf or tennis, where everyone knows all of the best guys will square off at the majors four times a year. Track is a sport with just three majors every four years. And even at those majors, the fans don’t always get the head-to-head matchups they crave. Sometimes runners don’t double back (Venuste Niyongabo is the 1996 Olympic 5,000 champ, not Haile Gebrselassie) or opt for a different event (what will Sifan Hassan do this summer?).
Track lacks a single entity that can compel matchups by setting athletes’ schedules, with financial penalties for failing to appear. And I’m not arguing it should have one. But what we have is a completely free market — a sport made up of thousands of independent contractors operating in their own self-interest. Wetmore, as the agent to both Brazier and Hoppel, has an obligation to represent each man’s interests. If Brazier wants to run an 800 and Hoppel wants to run a 1000, his job is to make it happen (though it’s a little complicated in this case; Wetmore is also the meet director, and the meet director’s interest is to try to get the big matchups).
“Nobody’s dodging anybody here,” Wetmore says. “It’s just Donavan runs the 800 and Bryce wants to run a 1000.”
But is it good for the sport for two of the world’s top athletes — who, ostensibly, run the same event — show up to the same meet three times in a four-week span and never actually race each other?
“I think that’s putting a lot of responsibility for the health of our sport on two guys,” Wetmore says. “These guys are gonna race each other. Outdoors, there are fewer opportunities to run different events. You kind of have to run the 800.”
Brazier and Hoppel don’t have a history of avoiding each other — they raced at Millrose and Monaco last year. Hoppel likes racing against Brazier. After his 1:44.37 in Fayetteville, sideline reporter Lewis Johnson‘s informed Hoppel he has moved to #2 on the all-time US indoor list (behind Brazier). Hoppel’s response? “I’m going for #1.”
“Being in a race with Donavan is so much fun for me,” Hoppel told the Citius Mag Podcast this week, “because this is a guy that’s dominated the field and he’s the head of the scene right now. So when I get against guys like that, I’m just excited to show myself what I can do.”
The sport is not going to crumble if Donavan Brazier and Bryce Hoppel don’t race each other at an indoor meet in February. They will be on the line against each other when it counts — at the Olympic Trials in Eugene in June and, should all go according to plan, the Olympic final in Tokyo on August 4. But they’re both personable guys, both supremely talented athletes, and both represented by the same agency. It shouldn’t be hard to get them to race each other right now. And the fact that they’re not is a missed opportunity for the sport.
Related: NBIGP Preview: The Best US Indoor Meet of 2021 Season Is Saturday What a track meet. You can make a case that the men’s Olympic favorites at 100 (Noah Lyles/Trayvon Bromell), 200 (Lyles), 400 (Michael Norman), and 800 (Donavan Brazier) are all racing in Staten Island this weekend. Plus Sydney McLaughlin, Shaunae Miller-Uibo, and AR attempts in the 1000 (Bryce Hoppel) & 2-mile (Elle Purrier).