The Eight Most Interesting Track Storylines to Follow in 2022
By Jonathan Gault
May 18, 2022
With one Diamond League meet already in the books, the 2022 professional track season is officially underway. Over the next two months, we’ll crown NCAA, US, World, World U20, Commonwealth, and European champions in one of the busiest summers our sport has ever seen.
Those are the meets. But there are also the characters of track & field. This time last year, no one was talking about Marcell Jacobs and Erriyon Knighton. Now they’re two of the biggest deals in the entire sport. After years of Timothy Cheruiyot owning the 1500 meters, it’s now Jakob Ingebrigtsen‘s event (or is it?). Grant Fisher is a genuine American distance star, but how will that translate to the world stage?
As the 2022 season kicks into high gear, I put together a list of the eight track storylines I’m most interested in following this season. For this exercise, I tried to focus on new storylines. So sorry 400 hurdlers — your event is incredible, but it has been incredible for the last three years so I already have an idea of what’s in store for 2022. Not so for some of the other entries on this list.
Think I missed something? Tell me which storyline you’re most excited for and why on the LetsRun messageboard: MB Here are the 8 storylines I’ll be watching most closely in track in 2022. What are yours?
(Editor’s note: They aren’t ranked below, so #1 isn’t necessarily more interesting than #8).
1. Will Marcell Jacobs extend his reign in the men’s 100?
After Marcell Jacobs shocked everyone to win the Olympic 100-meter final last year in 9.80, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. On the one hand, the clock doesn’t lie and 9.80 is damn fast. On the other hand, Jacobs needed a time qualifier just to make the final in Tokyo. Was this the beginning of the Marcell Jacobs era? Or just an interruption before 2019 world champion Christian Coleman returned from his whereabouts suspension this year?
After Jacobs’ dramatic eyelash victory at World Indoors in March, I’m now leaning toward the former. Jacobs stepped down to Coleman’s domain — the 60 meters — and took him down. If he’s a better 60-meter runner than he was a year ago (6.41 vs 6.47), it stands to reason he’s better in the 100 as well.
But challengers abound. Fred Kerley has started hot this year. Ferdinand Omanyala just ran a world leader in Nairobi. Trayvon Bromell is out to avenge a poor showing at last year’s Olympics. Coleman is still around. And you know Andre De Grasse is going to show up at the major championships. All of these men are 27 or younger, which means we should be in store for some exciting battles as a new Olympic cycle begins.
Keep an eye on the clock, as well. Could this be the year the sub-9.7 club finally gains a new member? There have only been five sub-9.7’s in history: three by Usain Bolt, one by Tyson Gay, and one by Yohan Blake. The most recent of those came almost a decade ago, Blake’s 9.69 in Lausanne in 2012. With the world’s best meeting twice this year on the super fast Hayward Field straightaway (Pre and Worlds — plus USAs is there as well), the potential for a special time is there.
2. Everything about Erriyon Knighton
Erriyon Knighton is arguably the World Championship favorite in the 200 meters at the age of 18, so obviously I’m going to be paying attention to him. But you already know about the 200 stuff. Can we talk about the fact that Knighton could become the first high school boy to break 10 seconds in the 100?
Sub-10 by a high schooler* should be a Holy Grail moment, the way Jim Ryun‘s sub-4:00 mile was in 1964. I’m worried it won’t be. Track isn’t as relevant as it was in 1964, or even 2001 when Alan Webb was on the Late Show after running 3:53 at Pre. Even though the 100 is a glamour event, and 9.99 is a more impressive performance than 3:53 (it’s worth 3:49 on the World Athletics scoring tables), is Stephen Colbert going to come calling for Knighton if he breaks the barrier?
There’s also the fact that Knighton is already so good at the 200 that sub-10 feels like a formality. It’s possible to run 19.49 and never break 10.00 (Michael Johnson‘s pb was 10.09), but Knighton has already beaten a bunch of sub-10 guys this year and ran 10.04 his last time out into a small headwind. It’s just a matter of getting in a fast race and/or friendly wind.
The good news is that Knighton should have a big audience for his next two attempts at sub-10: he’s entered in the Pre Classic on May 28 and the NYC Grand Prix on June 12, both of which will be broadcast on NBC.
Should Knighton crack 10.00, he wouldn’t just be the first US high schooler to do it; he’d be the youngest person, ever. (And speaking of lack of proper recognition…did you realize the record for youngest sub-10 was set last month? Botswana’s Letsile Tebogo, the World U20 champion, ran 9.96 on April 30 at the age of 18 years, 327 days — that’s 11 days younger than Trayvon Bromell when he did it in 2014.) So what if we already know Knighton can do it? The first-ever high school sub-10.00 is only going to happen once in history. It deserves to be celebrated when it does.
*Editor’s note: Knighton’s graduation is next weekend but Gault said he’s following Track & Field News’ protocols and will count anything run this summer as being from a HSer. For more on Knighton, please read this Nick Zaccardi feature on him where Ato Boldon says Knighton’s 19.49 was more of a shock to him than Usain Bolt breaking the 100 and 200 world records at the Beijing Olympics.
3. The return of Donavan Brazier
I wrote about Brazier already in my Doha Diamond League preview, so I’m not going to rehash everything here. Obviously his outdoor opener didn’t go to plan (1:50.58 for 6th in Doha in windy conditions). But it’s important to remember that Brazier is the only American man to win a World or Olympic 800 title since Dave Wottle 50 years ago, and he did so by running a championship and American record of 1:42.34 in the World Championship final. He’s one of the greatest middle-distance talents the United States has ever produced and, assuming he is fully healthy again, should still be in his prime years.
4. Who owns the men’s 1500?
After Jakob Ingebrigtsen won last year’s Olympic 1500 final in Tokyo, his father (and then coach) Gjert told Norwegian TV that Jakob would never lose to silver medalist Timothy Cheruiyot again. That statement held true for all of 33 days until Cheruiyot turned back Ingebrigtsen to win the Diamond League final in Zurich.
It also left the 1500 in a far more interesting place entering the 2022 season. As impressive as it was to see Cheruiyot dominate the Diamond League circuit from 2018-21, it was also a tad repetitive. This year, we don’t know who the king will be. That gold in Tokyo could serve as a launching point for Ingebrigtsen to rule the world for the next four years in the same way Cheruiyot just did. Cheruiyot, who battled a hamstring injury in 2021, could wrest back control of the event. Or maybe one of the challengers — Olympic third and fourth placers Josh Kerr and Abel Kipsang or World Indoor champ Samuel Tefera — takes a leap and makes it a three-horse race up front. Kipsang drew first blood on the 2022 DL circuit, turning back to win the season opener in Doha on Friday; on Saturday we’ll get to see him against Kerr and Tefera in Birmingham (Ingebrigtsen will make his DL debut at Pre on May 28).
Anything could happen. And that’s just the way we like it in the 1500.
5. Can Grant Fisher become a fixture at the front of international races?
For the last 15 years, the USA has had at least one long-distance man capable of winning medals on the track. Bernard Lagat piled up a gold and two silvers in the 5,000 from 2007-2011 while Galen Rupp added a 10,000 silver in 2012. Just as they began to fade, Paul Chelimo stepped up and took on the mantle, earning a silver in 2016 and bronzes in 2017 and 2021.
Chelimo is 31, so who knows how long he has left (if he ages like Lagat, it could be another decade) but America may have found its next distance medalist in Grant Fisher. The 25-year-old Fisher finished 5th in the Olympic 10,000 last year, then spent the winter crushing American records, running 12:53 for 5k and 26:33 for 10k.
But Fisher still has to get it done on the big stage. He has yet to win a US title, and while fast times are nice, the ultimate goal is to translate them into global medals. Fisher is well-positioned to do that — 5th in his first Olympic final is a great start — but let’s not understate how difficult that task is. Consider the men Fisher will be up against in the distance events in Eugene this summer: Ingebrigtsen, Joshua Cheptegei, Jacob Kiplimo, Selemon Barega, and Berihu Aregawi. Plus Chelimo and Fisher’s own BTC teammate Moh Ahmed. That’s a murderer’s row of talent, and if Fisher doesn’t win a medal against that group, it should not be viewed as some grand failure. But he needs to be in that group when the kicking gets serious on the final lap. That is the expectation now.
6. The world record chases: Will FloJo’s WRs finally go down? Could we see sub-12.80 and sub-14:00?
World record chases always add a layer of intrigue to the season. Once someone gets close, every one of their races becomes a must-watch event. You don’t want to miss out when that record finally goes down.
There are a number of events that could see a world record this year, but I’m going to focus on four. The 400 hurdles world records will be in danger for as long as the Karsten Warholm/Rai Benjamin/Alison dos Santos/Sydney McLaughlin/Dalilah Muhammad group is in their primes, but that is pretty well-known at this point. Ditto for the men’s pole vault and shot put and women’s triple jump. Mondo Duplantis, Ryan Crouser, and Yulimar Rojas are all-time talents, but each of them has already broken multiple world records and it’s not quite as fun when an athlete is breaking their own WR from a year ago compared to someone else’s record from a few decades ago.
That’s why I settled on the following four records to focus on:
Women’s 100 and 200 (10.49 and 21.34 by Florence Griffith-Joyner from 1988)
Whether due to the mysterious 0.0 wind reading for her 100m record or her miraculous late-career improvement followed by an immediate retirement, many view Florence Griffith-Joyner‘s longstanding world records in the 100 and 200 as suspect, with the president of the Jamaican track & field federation going as far as to suggest FloJo’s 10.49 should be stricken from the record books.
Of course, one of Jamaica’s finest, Elaine Thompson-Herah, would stand to benefit from that deletion as the double-double Olympic champ holds the #2 time in history at 10.54. But Thompson-Herah has also said she wants to break FloJo’s record this year, and with the World Championships taking place on the same Eugene track where she ran her pb, it could be possible if Thompson-Herah times her peak well and grabs a friendly wind (Thompson-Herah had a +0.9 tailwind for her 10.54; a +2.0 for the same effort would take her to 10.48 per Jonas Mureika‘s wind conversion calculator). Plus Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who ran 10.60 last year and just opened up in 10.67 in Nairobi, will be there to chase Thompson-Herah (and the record) as well. 21.34 will be a bit tougher, but Thompson-Herah’s pb is close enough (21.53) that it’s not impossible.
Men’s 110 hurdles (12.80 by Aries Merritt from 2012)
With a world record, a world title, four of the five fastest times in history, and zero losses, 24-year-old Grant Holloway is already the greatest 60-meter hurdler in history. But outdoors is where track & field legends are truly judged — they don’t hand out Olympic medals for indoor track — and that is where Holloway still has work to do. He’s already won a world title and run 12.81, the second-fastest time in history, but Holloway won’t stop until he’s the best to ever do it, and given his consistency and 2022 indoor form, the world’s first-ever sub-12.80 could come at any time. A lot of things have to go right to hit that sort of time — the current world record holder, Aries Merritt, broke 13.00 seconds seven times in 2012 before finally getting the WR in his last race — but Holloway is one of the few men in history for whom the WR is a realistic possibility if all breaks well.
Word to the wise: pay special attention when he decides to shave his head.
Women’s 5,000 (14:06.62 by Letesenbet Gidey in 2020)
Okay, so this record was broken less than two years ago, but I’m listing it here because there’s plenty of meat left on the bone. At no point in time has current record holder Letesenbet Gidey been considered the greatest 5,000-meter runner in the world. Yes, she broke the world record in 2020, but that was her only victory at the distance in 14 attempts since July 2016. She’s run the event at a global championships once and finished 11th (at the 2017 Worlds, when she was 19 years old). Of the three major world records Gidey owns (5k, 10k, half marathon), it’s definitely the weakest.
So I’ll be watching to see whether Olympic 5,000 champion Sifan Hassan (or Gidey herself) takes a crack at sub-14:00 this year. (That would, of course, require Hassan to race — something she has yet to do in 2022). It’s one of the final round-number barriers remaining in women’s running and even though Hassan’s world record attempt fell well short at the Pre Classic last year, that can be attributed to lingering fatigue from running six races in nine days at the Olympics earlier that month. Put her in top shape with good conditions and the Wavelight to chase and a woman who has run 3:51 and 29:06 should have the ability to give sub-14:00 a serious scare.
If Hassan is chasing something similarly crazy at the 2022 Worlds in Eugene (or the Euros later this summer in Munich), maybe she doesn’t have the time to throw a world record attempt in on top. But Gidey could. Maybe Francine Niyonsaba too, if she keeps improving at her current rate. So until I hear otherwise, I’m allowing myself to be excited by the prospect of a woman running 13:xx.
7. A decade-defining 800m rivalry?
Watching Athing Mu and Keely Hodgkinson race each other in last year’s Olympic 800-meter final in Tokyo, it was hard to keep my mind on the present — even if that present consisted of two women each running huge 1:55 pb’s in the Olympic final. When you run 1:55 and medal at the Olympics at age 19, your potential is essentially unlimited. And suddenly we had two of these women set to compete against each other for the next decade?
Unfortunately round two was not quite as exciting (Mu destroyed Hodgkinson by 3+ seconds at the Pre Classic), but there’s still so much we don’t know about this rivalry, the first being whether it will actually become a rivalry. The pieces are in place — two massive talents from two of running’s traditional powers — but you can’t forecast injuries or improvements or the emergence of even younger talents. For all we know, maybe Tokyo 2021 was the high point of Mu and Hodgkinson’s encounters (and to be fair, even if they develop a great rivalry, it will be tough to beat going 1-2 at the Olympics). But that’s part of the appeal. Anything is on the table and we have no idea where their careers will go. I just know that I’m going to enjoy finding out.
8. Who is the queen of American steepling?
For most of the last decade, this has been a very easy question to answer. From 2011-21, Emma Coburn won nine US steeple titles (only missing out in 2013, when she was injured, and 2020, when USAs were cancelled due to COVID). Even when Courtney Frerichs beat Coburn to set the American record in Monaco in 2018, it was not viewed as a changing of the guard; it was the only time in their first 17 matchups in which Frerichs emerged victorious.
Entering 2022, however, the question of best American female steepler is very much up in the air. Frerichs closed out 2021 with an Olympic silver medal in one of the gutsiest runs ever by an US distance runner, then made history by running 8:57.77 at Prefontaine to become the fourth-fastest woman in history (and first American under the 9:00 barrier). Coburn, meanwhile, ran an uncharacteristically poor race in the Tokyo final and was ultimately DQ’d, then sat out the rest of the season as her body struggled to recover.
Can Frerichs build on her 2021 success and take firm control of the rivalry? Or will Coburn reclaim bragging rights? The great thing about Coburn and Frerichs is that each brings out the best in the other — never more evident than the 2017 World Championship final in London, where both ran personal bests to go 1-2 on the world. This year should present at least four opportunities for the two to duke it out on the big stage (Pre Classic, USAs, Worlds, Diamond League final), with three of those coming in front of an American crowd in Eugene.
Tell us what you are most looking forward to this summer. MB Here are the 8 storylines I’ll be watching most closely in track in 2022. What are yours?