2021 Zurich Weltklasse Diamond League Final Preview: The Best Three Hours of Track of the Year
By Jonathan Gault
September 8, 2021
You will not find a more star-studded three-hour window of track & field this year than Thursday’s Diamond League final at the Weltklasse meet in Zurich. In the 12-year history of the Diamond League, there’s never been anything quite like it.
Starting this year, the DL final is a one-off meet, rather than splitting the events between Zurich and Brussels. That means that, from 1-4 p.m. ET, 17 Olympic champions will be spread across 25 world-class events, featuring some of the biggest names in the sport: Karsten Warholm, Faith Kipyegon, Sifan Hassan, Jakob Ingebrigtsen, Elaine Thompson-Herah, Andre De Grasse. Other meets may have higher stakes or better head-to-head showdowns. But no meet — not NCAAs, not the Olympic Trials, not the Olympics — can match the sheer depth of talent packed into one three-hour session.
Not everyone will be in Zurich. Some notable Olympic champs are skipping out, such as Joshua Cheptegei, Sydney McLaughlin, Athing Mu, and Marcell Jacobs. Noah Lyles, Grant Holloway, and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce won’t be there either. But it should still be a cracker of a meet, and co-meet director Andreas Hediger says Zurich has already sold “way more” than 20,000 tickets, so there should be a fitting crowd on hand.
Let’s take a moment to look at what else is new in 2021 before previewing the 10 best races to watch in Zurich.
What: 2021 Weltklasse Zurich Diamond League Final
When: Wednesday, September 8 – Thursday, September 9
Where: Sechseläutenplatz (Wednesday events) and Letzigrund stadium (Thursday events)
*Schedule/entries/results *How to watch
What Is New in 2021
In addition to condensing the DL final into a single meet (which will be hosted at Hayward Field in 2023), there are a few other changes from previous years. First, the prize money has been cut. In 2019, there was $100,000 on offer per event, with winners getting $50,000 each. In 2021, those numbers have been cut to $60,000 and $30,000, respectively. Every winner still gets a Diamond trophy and a bye to the 2022 Worlds in Eugene.
The most noticeable change is that seven of the 32 DL event finals will be held as part of a street meet on Wednesday in Sechseläutenplatz, Zurich’s main town square on the shore of Lake Zurich. It’s not unusual for Diamond Leagues to move field events to the city center, which is what is happening with the men’s and women’s shot put, long jump, and women’s high jump.
It is unusual for it to happen for a distance race. Both the men’s and women’s DL 5,000m finals will be held on a three-lane, 560-meter banked track, which will look a little something like this:
— Manel Grau-Manyosa (@tonteries_tonte) September 7, 2021
The reaction to this, judging by track Twitter, has been overwhelmingly negative. And it’s not hard to understand why.
- 560m track means it’s harder to get splits and keep track of laps/distance
- The track goes around the Zurich Opera House, which means that no matter where you watch the race from, you’ll be blocked from seeing a significant chunk of it
- The number of fans who get to see the race in person is significantly smaller than in the actual stadium (2,500 vs 20,000)
- Well we are all talking about it so the track has gotten a lot of publicity.
I’m not opposed to trying new ideas, but a “street” 5,000 (that is still on a track) seems to be new for the sake of new, an idea that sounds cooler on paper than it actually is. Agent Dan Lilot hits the nail on the head: “Nothing wrong with trying out new material, but you workshop that at a small club on a Tuesday night, not in your HBO one-hour special.” (Lilot also notes the juxtaposition of the DL cutting prize money and entry spots for the final while Weltklasse spends god-knows-how-much on installing a temporary 560m track).
Top 10 races to watch in Zurich
Here are my 10 best races to watch at the DL final, ranked from least to most interesting. And I’m getting it out there right now: the men’s 5,000 meters did not make the cut. It pains me to say that, because the men’s 5,000 has been one of the best events at the DL final in recent years, from Mo Farah‘s dramatic win in 2017 to Selemon Barega‘s 12:43 in 2018 to Joshua Cheptegei‘s bold breakaway in 2019. But the field this year is considerably short on star power — initially we were supposed to get Barega vs. Jakob Ingebrigtsen, but both men have scratched, leaving a field devoid of Olympic medalists. Throw in the goofy 560m track and this race is skippable.
10) Men’s steeple (2:46 p.m. ET, Thursday) – El Bakkali Returns
Three of the four DL men’s steeple this year have been wonky. The season opener in Gateshead was staged in awful conditions, leading to the slowest winning time in DL history — by almost 10 seconds (Hillary Bor‘s 8:30). In Monaco on July 9, the officials rang the bell a lap early, leading to a farcical final 800m. And in Paris, Olympic champ Soufiane El Bakkali got caught up on the first barrier and had to drop out after slamming to the track.
So let’s hope nothing goes wrong this time in Zurich and we can see some fast times in a race featuring El Bakkali, Bor, and Olympic bronze medalist Benjamin Kigen.
9) Women’s 800 (3:03 p.m. ET, Thursday) – Can Kate Grace get the Worlds bye?
Olympic champ Athing Mu has called it a season, and while she will be missed, her absence injects some uncertainty into an event that Mu has dominated in 2021. A number of women could win this. Jamaica’s Natoya Goule was only 8th at the Olympics but has otherwise been in good form this year and is coming off a win in Brussels last week against most of the same athletes she will face on Thursday. Great Britain’s Jemma Reekie has been in fine form, with top-3’s in Monaco and Brussels and a 4th at the Olympics. And Kate Grace had run four straight 1:57’s (including a win in Oslo) until struggling with a 1:59, 5th-place effort in Brussels last week; a win here for Grace would be enormous because of the bye into the World Championships.
I’m not picking any of those women to win, however. Olympic silver medalist Keely Hodgkinson would have won in Brussels last week had she run less distance over the final 150. Expect her to correct her mistake on Thursday and earn her first DL win.
8) Women’s 5000 (Wednesday, 11:35 a.m. ET) – Can Niyonsaba win again?
We just saw this race a week ago, so it’s hard to rank it too high, especially on the gimmicky track. At the same time…that 5,000 we just saw in Brussels was awesome! The four women who battled it out over a tight last lap are all entered in Zurich, led by Brussels winner Francine Niyonsaba (14:25.34) and followed by Ethiopia’s Ejgayehu Taye (14:25.63), world champ Hellen Obiri (14:26.23), and Margaret Kipkemboi (14:27.12). US champ Elise Cranny is the sole American entered.
Niyonsaba has to be the favorite as she has won all three of her post-Olympic Diamond League appearances…though one has to wonder if she is sealing her own fate. The more Niyonsaba dominates the 3k-5k range as a DSD athlete, the more evidence she is providing to World Athletics that DSD athletes have an advantage in those events. For now, however, Niyonsaba is cleared to compete without lowering her testosterone levels, and she is thriving.
One more storyline. This could well be the last “track” race of Hellen Obiri’s career, as she will be focusing on the roads moving forward (beginning with the Great North Run on Sunday). Obiri has won everything on the track except for the Olympics, including Diamond League titles in 2017 and 2018. Can she go out with a bang in her final race?
7) Women’s steeplechase (Thursday, 1:26 p.m. ET) – Frerichs vs Jeruto
It’s going to be hard to top the women’s steeple at the Prefontaine Classic, which saw Norah Jeruto (8:53.65) and Courtney Frerichs (8:57.77) move to #3 and #4 on the all-time list (#2 and #3 if you remove doper Ruth Jebet). But the fact that Jeruto and Frerichs both broke 9:00 in the same race at Pre — just the third time two women have done so in the same race — shows just how strong this event is right now.
Jeruto, who has won both of her steeples this year (she also ran 9:00 in Doha in May) will go off as the favorite, and if she runs like she did in Eugene, no one will challenge her. But if she’s closer to 9:00, Olympic medalists Frerichs and Hyvin Kiyeng should both be in the mix. Kiyeng will also be paying close attention to the clock. In her career, she has run 9:00.01, 9:00.05, and 9:00.12 but has never broken 9:00.
Another storyline to follow: can Peruth Chemutai back up her Olympic title? Chemutai did nothing this year before Tokyo and was only 7th at the Pre Classic. Can she recapture the form that saw her run 9:01 to win Olympic gold?
6) Men’s 800 (3:13 p.m. ET) – Wide open
Five of the seven DL men’s 800’s this year were won by men who did not make the Olympic final in Tokyo, including all of the last four: American Isaiah Harris in Gateshead, Canadian Marco Arop in Eugene and Lausanne, and Kenyan Wyclife Kinyamal in Paris. Will that trend continue in Zurich, or can Emmanuel Korir or Ferguson Rotich, who went 1-2 at the Olympics, end the season as DL champ?
It’s tough to say. Arop, Kinyamal, Korir, and Rotich have all been super consistent this year on the circuit. So consistent, in fact, that in 17 combined DL races, those men have finished outside of the top three only once in 2021 (that was Rotich, who was 4th in Monaco — and he still ran a season’s best of 1:43.57 in that race). These four, in some order, have been the four best guys in the world this year.
Picking between them is tough, however. Arop and Kinyamal have won two Diamond Leagues each, but Kinyamal didn’t make the Kenyan Olympic team and Arop flopped at the Olympics. Korir and Rotich haven’t won any DLs this year but have been great on the circuit and were great in Tokyo (Rotich did run 1:43 to win Brussels last week, but it wasn’t a DL points event).
I’ll take Rotich FTW. He always has a big close, it’s just a matter of being in position to use it. I predict the “old man” of the event (he’s 31) will time things right in Zurich.
5) Men’s 1500 (2:17 p.m. ET) – Ingebrigtsen vs Cheruiyot
I can’t drop a race featuring Olympic champ Jakob Ingebrigtsen and world champ Timothy Cheruiyot any lower than fifth in these rankings. Throw in Aussie Stewart McSweyn, who will ensure the pace won’t lag, and this should be a good watch.
Ingebrigtsen and Cheruiyot have, undoubtedly, been the best in the world this year. But each brings a slight concern into this race. For Ingebrigtsen, it’s fatigue. Though he has won both of his post-Olympic races (3:47.24 mile at Pre, 7:33.06 3k in Lausanne), he looked positively exhausted after crossing the finish line in Lausanne and withdrew from Brussels last week in order to rest up for Zurich. A tired Ingebrigtsen is still better than pretty much everyone in the world, but if he loses, that is why.
For Cheruiyot, the concern is his health. Both hamstrings have bothered him at times this year, and though he has still been able to produce some spectacular performances (3:28.28 pb in Monaco, 3:29.01 for silver in Tokyo), it started to show in Eugene as he was beaten badly by Ingebrigtsen and McSweyn at the Pre Classic. It was strange enough seeing Cheruiyot finish anywhere other than first in a Diamond League 1500/mile — entering the race, he had won 10 in a row and hadn’t finished lower than 2nd since May 2017 — but it was positively bizarre to see him neglect to go with the pace and get dusted by 3+ seconds.
Ingebrigtsen should take this one, but McSweyn (who seemingly never gets tired) will make him work for it.
4) Men’s 400 hurdles (3:35 p.m. ET) – Warholm!
Karsten Warholm is running this race, which automatically puts it in the top five. The guy has run world records in 67% of his 400m hurdle finals in 2021. Even if it’s a longshot for him to break it in Zurich, it’s still a treat to watch the guy race.
Whither Rai Benjamin? The Olympic silver medalist isn’t making the trip for this race. Which means that America’s two 400 hurdle stars, Benjamin and Sydney McLaughlin, combined to race a grand total of one Diamond League in 2021. Of course, when they did race elsewhere, the results were uniformly incredible.
There are plenty of reasons Benjamin may have chosen to end his season — needing to unwind after the intensity of an Olympic year, not wanting to fly from the West Coast to Europe for one meet — though I can’t help but think of what he said after that race in Tokyo.
“Everyone in this event should be getting paid big bucks, in all honesty,” Benjamin said. “All the Diamond League meet directors, they’ve gotta to open their checkbooks from now on.”
It makes me think that, over the next four years, Warholm and Benjamin may only end up racing each other when they absolutely have to: at the major championships.
3) Women’s 100 (2:29 p.m. ET) – One More Flojo Attempt by Elaine Thompson-Herah
With Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce scratching and Shericka Jackson moving up to the 200, there won’t be a Jamaican sweep in this one. But Olympic champ Elaine Thompson-Herah is still entered, and with the form she’s in, the world record has to at least be mentioned (it’s 10.49; Thompson-Herah’s sb is 10.54), especially since this could be her last crack at it this season.
That won’t be the only record Thompson-Herah is chasing on Thursday. If she breaks 10.7, it would be her fourth sub-10.7 of 2021, which would set a record for most sub-10.7s in one season and most sub-10.7s in a career (currently she’s tied with Florence Griffith-Joyner, who broke 10.7 three times in 1988, in both categories).
Should ETH break 10.8, it would be her 14th career sub-10.8 — only Fraser-Pryce (21) has more. It would also be ETH’s seventh sub-10.8 of 2021, which would be #2 for a single year (doper Marion Jones had nine in 1998).
2) Men’s 100/200 (2:38 p.m. ET/3:52 p.m. ET) – Double Attempts by De Grasse and Kerley
Okay, this is kind of cheating since these are two separate events. But I’m combining them because both Andre De Grasse and Fred Kerley will be attempting to do what Noah Lyles did in 2019 and win the DL title in the 100 and the 200. The difference is, in 2019 Lyles had eight days between races. De Grasse and Kerley will have 74 minutes.
Kudos to De Grasse and Kerley for attempting the double. The sport is better when stars try cool shit like this. And if one of them can pull it off, it would be super impressive because both fields are strong — Ronnie Baker, Trayvon Bromell, and Akani Simbine in the 100, Kenny Bednarek in the 200. A Lyles-De Grasse showdown in the 200 would have been great now that both are in top form, but this will have to do.
I’m predicting De Grasse wins both. He’s in the shape of his life right now, and he’s already the author of one of the greatest-ever one-day sprint doubles, going 9.75 (+2.7)/19.58 (+2.4) at NCAAs in 2015.
1) Women’s 1500 (2:06 p.m. ET) – Faith Kipyegon vs Sifan Hassan vs History
Sifan Hassan vs. Faith Kipyegon and a potential world record? Sign me up.
Even though we’ve already seen Hassan vs. Kipyegon three times this year (reminder: Hassan beat Kipyegon in Florence, Kipyegon beat Hassan in Monaco and Tokyo), there are some good reasons for making this my #1 choice.
First: star power. While many events in Zurich feature stars, many of the potential big-name showdowns did not materialize. Selemon Barega was going to battle Jakob Ingebrigtsen in the men’s 5,000; now both men are out. There’s no Warholm vs. Benjamin in the men’s 400 hurdles, and no McLaughlin or Muhammad in the women’s 400 hurdles. There’s no Noah Lyles vs. Andre De Grasse in the men’s 200. But there is Hassan vs. Kipyegon in the women’s 1500 — our only head-to-head battle between Tokyo gold medalists.
Second: could Hassan actually win this time? I don’t think so — I don’t know if anyone in history could beat Kipyegon the way she is running right now — but Hassan doesn’t have a 5k in her legs like she did when they battled in the Tokyo 1500 final and is coming off a quick 4:14.74 mile (#5 all-time). Plus nothing motivates Hassan more than someone telling her she can’t do something, so I hope she reads this and gives Kiypegon a hell of a race.
Third: the world record. Kipyegon missed it by one second in Monaco, running 3:51.07, then absolutely blasted the field with a solo 3:53.23 at Pre. With Hassan to push her in this race, she could go even faster in Zurich. (Reminder that Hassan, whose pb is 3:51.95), isn’t that far off the 3:50.07 WR either).
One last thing. Did you realize Faith Kipyegon is about to finish the greatest season ever by a female 1500 runner?
It’s actually not close. This year, Kipyegon has run 3:51.07, 3:53.11, 3:53.23, and 3:53.91. If you throw out Chinese/Soviet times, those marks rank #2, #4, #5, and #8 on the all-time performance list. And one of them was run in the Olympic final to win the gold medal. A world record would be a fitting end to the greatest season ever by the greatest miler ever.
Hassan, for what it’s worth, has the #3, #6, and #7 performances on that list, the latter two both run this year. So yeah, a showdown between two of the best milers the planet has ever seen at the peak of their powers is the #1 race I’m most excited for on Thursday.