LA Times: Athing Mu Considering Sitting Out 2023 Worlds

One of track & field’s biggest stars may be absent when the 2023 World Athletics Championships begin in Budapest on August 19. Athing Mu, the reigning world and Olympic champion at 800 meters, is still undecided whether she will run Worlds this year, according to an interview with her coach Bobby Kersee by Andrew Greif of the Los Angeles Times.

And here’s the kicker – she’s not injured.

Kersee said Mu is still training and plans on entering Worlds (the US roster is expected to be announced this week) but could decide to scratch before the meet. If Mu does scratch, it won’t impact the rest of the US team as she has a bye as the reigning world champion.

“It’s in our control if we decide we’re just going to go ahead and train through this year and focus on next year, then that’s what we’re going to do,” Kersee told the LA Times. “The training is going well but our thought process, openly, is that we’re going to just train here in L.A. for the next two weeks and the next time she gets on the plane it’ll either be on vacation or to Budapest.”

USATF Outdoor Track and Field Championships held at Hayward Field, University of Oregon, July 6-10, 2023 Kevin Morris photo

Mu has only competed at two meets since winning the 800m world title in Eugene last year. She ran 1:58.73 to win the 800 at the USATF NYC Grand Prix on June 24, then ran 4:03.44 to finish second in the 1500 at the USATF Outdoor Championships in Eugene on July 8. She was scheduled to run the 400 meters at the Ed Murphey Classic in Memphis on Friday but has withdrawn from that meet.

It’s important to note that Mu and Kersee are undecided at this point – there is still a chance she could run the 800 at Worlds. But the fact that Mu is even considering skipping Worlds is a huge story. The women’s 800 was one of the most exciting events of the 2022 World Championships, with Mu edging Great Britain’s Keely Hodgkinson for the title by just .08. Hodgkinson and bronze medalist Mary Moraa are both eager for a rematch in Budapest, and the event would lose some luster if Mu is not on the start line.

LRC Analysis: Athing Mu is incredibly talented at running but doesn’t seem to particularly enjoy doing it

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A week ago, if you had told us that one of the biggest stars in the sport was healthy and fit and still considering not running Worlds, Mu would have been one of our first picks. 

Back in March, when Mu appeared on the Pivot Podcast, co-host Ryan Clark could not help but notice that Mu seemed more excited about modeling than running. A few highlights from their exchange:

Mu: “Modeling is 100% in my eye’s view. I honestly, I don’t know if I should say this – I make jokes all the time about me retiring within the next two years and just going to walk the runway. But I would love to go walk the runway, do editorial shoots. I would love to do anything in the fashion world.”

Clark: “The way you talk about having an opportunity to model as opposed to the way you talk about track & field, two totally different lights in your eyes.”

Mu: “100%.”

Clark: “Every time we mention modeling or walking the runway, you just light up.”

Mu: “Yeah.”

Mu, asked when she would know it was time to retire from running:

“Uh…When I have no time to run track because I’m modeling too much? That’s literally it. I don’t know. Just checking off my goals. I think I am definitely happy with what I’ve done so far but there are some more things that I want to get done. So if I do get a chance to accomplish these goals like win a double at a World Championships or whatever the case may be, I think realistically, because I know that there is something else I want to do, I would be okay with letting it go a little sooner than maybe someone else would. And because I’ve been running for so many years, then I believe I would be absolutely fine with just taking the next step to do another career or be part of the sport as an ambassador or something.”

Last month at USAs, Mu admitted that she has enjoyed scaling back her racing schedule in 2023 compared to 2021 (when she raced a lot) and 2022 (where she raced at 10 meets and called it a season after Worlds).

“This year has been so great for me, mentally,” Mu said. “It’s just been such a relief, I haven’t really put myself out there as much. Coming into these meets, whether it’s a small competition, big competition, there’s just so much pressure just overall. You’re overthinking your race days before you’re even out there. Just the overall pressure that you feel when it comes to competing is a lot.

“And so I think the past few years have been a lot for me and so we just wanted to take a step back and just be my 21-year-old self, just enjoy life for a little bit.”

Couple those sentiments with the fact that Mu’s coach Bobby Kersee does not like to race his stars very often (see: Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone) and may also be learning the intricacies of how to coach the 800, and it’s not a total shock that Mu may just skip out on Worlds.

With world and Olympic titles, Mu has already accomplished more in the sport than most athletes ever will. She has said that she is still motivated by breaking Jarmila Kratochvílová’s 1:53.28 world record, which celebrated its 40th anniversary last week. But for Mu, who has not lost an 800 since February 2020, when she was a high school senior, the stress and pressure of lining up in Budapest to fight for a title she has already won in the past may not appeal to her or her coach. If she wins, it was expected. If she loses, her decision to leave Milton Mallard, who guided her to World and Olympic titles, immediately gets heavily scrutinized.

If Mu ends her 2023 season now, she would not be the first high-profile young athlete to take a break. In recent years, both Naomi Osaka (tennis) and Simone Biles (gymnastics) have stepped away from their sports while still in their physical primes.

Quick Take: We wonder how Nike would feel if Mu skipped Worlds

Few things are more important to shoe companies than an athlete’s performance at World Championships and Olympic Games. Mu’s contract is not public, but it’s well-known that athletes can bump their salaries by hundreds of thousands of dollars per year by winning medals at those meets. Back in 2016 when Boris Berian’s contract was revealed, he had a $150,000 bonus for Olympic gold and a $100,000 bonus for World Championship gold – and those bonuses roll over to create a higher base salary for the following year. 

Nike is known for offering big incentives for high-performing athletes so it would not be a surprise if Mu’s bonuses for her Tokyo and Eugene performances were even bigger. But many track contracts also have reduction clauses – meaning a company can lower an athlete’s salary for failing to meet performance goals. Might Mu be subject to a reduction if she skips Worlds – and would Nike enforce the reduction if so? She’s one of track’s biggest stars, but one of the reasons they pay Mu is for her to compete in their gear, particularly at the biggest events.

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MB: Athing Mu may skip 2023 World Championships to focus on 2024

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