6 Final Thoughts from Budapest: Handing Out MVPs, We Need More Worlds in Europe, & MoreBy Jonathan Gault
The 2023 World Athletics Championships are over, and the running world is already moving on. We’ve got three Diamond Leagues left, including the final in Eugene from September 16-17, and pretty soon the NCAA cross country and fall marathon seasons will be upon us. Elite running never really stops.
As usual, the on-track action at Worlds did not disappoint. From Josh Kerr‘s upset in the 1500 to Noah Lyles‘ triple gold to Femke Bol‘s heroics in the 4×400, the meet produced a number of moments we’ll still be talking about years from now. We produced a lot of content on the meet here at LetsRun.com — 10 podcasts, dozens of articles, more than 170 interviews — but I still have a few thoughts remaining from my 12 days in Budapest. Below, in no particular order, six final thoughts on Worlds, Budapest, and the whole experience.
1) Noah Lyles & Faith Kipyegon were the MVPs of Worlds
Before this year, no man had won two individual gold medals at the same World Championships since Usain Bolt and Mo Farah in Beijing in 2015. Lyles brought that drought to an end, and added a third gold in the 4×100 relay for good measure. He owns the sprints in a way that no man has since Bolt.
Faith Kipyegon matched Lyles with two individual golds of her own, becoming the first woman to complete the 1500/5000 double at Worlds or the Olympics — and Kipyegon did it while facing tougher competition than Lyles. 2023 has not been a particularly strong year in the men’s 100. Right now, Lyles and Zharnel Hughes are tied for the world lead at 9.83 seconds which, if it holds up, would be the slowest world lead in a full season since 2004 (Michael Norman‘s 9.86 was the world leader in 2020 but most major meets were cancelled due to COVID). In the women’s 1500, meanwhile, five women ran 3:56 in a semifinal.
And the women’s 5,000 is the strongest it has ever been. Only nine women in history have broken 14:15, yet six women have done it in 2023. To win the 5,000 at Worlds, Kipyegon had to beat the reigning world champion (Gudaf Tsesgay), reigning Olympic champion (Sifan Hassan), reigning World XC champion (Beatrice Chebet), a two-time Worlds medalist (Margaret Kipkemboi), another Worlds medalist (Ejgayehu Taye), and the reigning World U20 champion (Medina Eisa). She beat them by closing out her title with a ridiculous 56.59 final lap — even faster than she ran for her last lap in the 1500 final (56.63).
There’s a good argument to be had about whether Kipyegon (utter domination of the 1500 and now a world champion/world record holder at 5,000) or Hassan (the most versatile distance runner ever and author of some of the craziest feats in running history) is the greatest runner of their generation, and perhaps all time. That’s an argument for a different day, but it’s a blessing for the sport to have both of them in it at the same time.
2) Budapest was a great host and Worlds needs to be in Europe at least every four years
From athletes to media to fans, almost everyone I talked to in Budapest had good things to say about the event. The brand-new National Athletics Centre was a gorgeous venue in a picturesque location, and I never tired of watching the sun set over the Danube from the main concourse. The fans showed up in force and were LOUD, especially for Hungarian athletes (I can only imagine what it would have sounded like had Hungary won more than a single medal). Sebastian Coe reported that more than 95% of tickets had been sold for Worlds, and while those numbers must always be taken with a grain of salt (there were only a few moments during the entire meet when the stadium actually looked 95% full), it was a big improvement on last year’s meet in Eugene, where a combination of overpriced tickets and lodging and a hard-to-reach location led to organizers struggling to sell out a 15,000-seat stadium.
Budapest itself was beautiful, from the tree-lined Andrassy Avenue and Heroes’ Square (which proved an inspired choice for the marathon course) to Margaret Island in the middle of the Danube (encircled by a three-mile running track) to the hills over the city, which house Buda Castle and offer an incredible view of the iconic Hungarian parliament building. For track fans with time to kill before an evening session, there was plenty to do.
This was my fifth World Championships for LetsRun.com, and the first hosted in Europe since London 2017. And what has become clear is that Europe needs to be hosting these championships at least every four years, if not more frequently. I understand World Athletics wants to grow the sport, and I’d love to see Africa host Worlds one day (based on World U18s and World U20s in Nairobi, the atmosphere there could be incredible). But professional track is more popular in Europe than any other continent, and between London 2017, the 2018 Euros in Berlin, last year’s Commonwealth Games in Birmingham and Euros in Munich, and this year’s Worlds in Budapest, the big meets consistently draw big crowds. And track looks a whole lot better on TV in front of packed houses.
Coe knows this as well as anyone. Speaking at a press event in Zurich on Thursday, Coe said he had received weekly updates on ticket sales in the leadup to the Budapest Worlds. He did not want a repeat of Doha.
“I just cannot deal with empty seats in a stadium because it makes us look marginal,” Coe said. “And we’re not marginal.”
It’s also relatively easy to travel between major cities in Europe. If you’re a track fan in Ireland, you could have made a three-day trip to Budapest from August 22-24 and seen the finals of the 1500 (Ciara Mageean) and 400 (Rhasidat Adeleke). Norwegians could have done the same to see Jakob Ingebrigtsen and Karsten Warholm in their finals on August 23 (and they did — I saw plenty of Norwegian flags in the stand that night). Good luck making the same quick trip in Tokyo in 2025.
Now it must be noted that Budapest was in position to host because its increasingly authoritarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, in office since 2010, was willing to commit hundreds of millions of dollars to get it. Hungary is not quite Russia, China, or Qatar — all of which have hosted Worlds in the last decade — but it’s hard not to see a parallel between them and Hungary’s hosting of the 2023 Worlds, a massively positive event that offered the potential to draw attention away from Orbán’s crackdown on press freedom and LGBTQ+ content. Budapest appears to have won over at least one very important person: Coe, whom many expect to run for the presidency of the International Olympic Committee in 2025, said at his closing press conference that the city is ready to host the Olympics.
3) A rough meet for American distance runners
For the second straight championship, Americans only won a single medal in the mid-distance/distance events. Both times it was the same athlete: Athing Mu, who took gold in the 800 in Eugene and bronze in Budapest. In the 1500 through marathon, Americans earned no medals at all, making them a combined 0/60 in those events across the last two championships. That’s rough: prior to last year, you’d have to go back to 2008 for the last time American distance runners were shut out at an Olympics/Worlds.
American medals, 1500 through marathon, last 11 global championships
|Bernard Lagat (1500 bronze, 5k silver), Shannon Rowbury (1500 bronze)
|Matthew Centrowitz (1500 bronze), Bernard Lagat (5k silver), Jenny Simpson (1500 gold)
|Leo Manzano (1500 silver), Galen Rupp (10k silver)
|Matthew Centrowitz (1500 silver), Jenny Simpson (1500 silver)
|Emily Infeld (10k bronze)
|Rio de Janeiro
Matthew Centrowitz (1500 gold), Paul Chelimo (5k silver), Evan Jager (steeple silver), Galen Rupp (marathon bronze), Jenny Simpson (1500 bronze), Emma Coburn (steeple bronze)
Paul Chelimo (5k bronze), Evan Jager (steeple bronze), Jenny Simpson (1500 silver), Emma Coburn (steeple gold), Courtney Frerichs (steeple silver), Amy Cragg (marathon bronze)
|Emma Coburn (steeple silver)
|Paul Chelimo (5k bronze), Courtney Frerichs (steeple silver), Molly Seidel (marathon bronze)
So was this some grand underperformance by the Americans? Not really. Some of the consistent medal threats from previous championships — Matthew Centrowitz, Jenny Simpson, Emma Coburn, Paul Chelimo — are getting older. And in some events, the competition is getting better. The women’s 5,000 is as stacked as it’s ever been. The men’s and women’s 1500 are both super deep right now. Alicia Monson ran a great race for 5th in the 10,000, but there’s no way she was beating Gudaf Tsegay or Letesenbet Gidey and would not have beaten Sifan Hassan without a fall.
Based on what they’ve done on the circuit the last two years, there are only two Americans who realistically had a good shot at a medal at the 2023 Worlds — and we saw proof of this on Thursday in Zurich. The first is Grant Fisher — he was hurt and did not even make the US team for Worlds. The other is Yared Nuguse, who slightly underperformed in Budapest, but 5th in the world in his debut global championships is still a pretty solid result. Outside of those two (or maybe Keira D’Amato in the marathon), it would have taken a huge overperformance by someone on the US roster to earn a distance medal in Budapest, and it didn’t happen.
This is not the 1990s, where the top Americans were miles off the best in the world. But the competition is only getting stronger at these championships. It’s not hard to imagine Americans winning multiple distance medals next year in Paris. It’s also not hard to imagine them winning zero, again.
4) The Five-Timers Club
With an Olympics/Worlds every year from 2021-2025, there is a unique chance for athletes to pile up a ton of gold medals in a very short period of time. Back in the pre-Worlds era (before 1983), athletes would have to stick around for 16 years (at least) for a chance to win five global golds. The current crop could knock out the same total in just five years.
Entering the 2023 Worlds, 14 athletes had a shot at the five-peat after winning at the 2021 Olympics and 2022 Worlds. Here’s how they fared:
Five-peat still alive
- Soufiane El Bakkali, Morocco (men’s steeple): Outkicked silver medalist Lamecha Girma of Ethiopia for the third straight championship.
- Mondo Duplantis, Sweden (men’s pole vault): Cleared 6.10m to make it three straight.
- Ryan Crouser, USA (men’s shot put): Threw 23.51m in the final round — the #2 throw ever — despite competing with two blood clots in his leg.
- Faith Kipyegon, Kenya (women’s 1500): The GOAT was as dominant as ever and won her fifth title overall.
- Katie Moon, USA (women’s pole vault): After winning gold outright in Tokyo and Eugene, Moon shared gold this time with Australia’s Nina Kennedy.
- Yulimar Rojas, Venezuela (women’s triple jump): Rojas was tied for 8th after her first three jumps and only got to take her last three because of her superior second-best mark compared to American Keturah Orji. The Venezuelan remained in last through five rounds but somehow summoned a 15.08m winning jump in round six to win her fifth straight global title.
- Emmanuel Korir, Kenya (men’s 800): Battled a calf injury all year and was eliminated in the heats in Budapest.
- Mutaz Essa Barshim, Qatar (men’s high jump): Cleared 2.33m to secure an incredible sixth straight global medal — a bronze.
- Pedro Pablo Pichardo, Portugal (men’s triple jump): Withdrew prior to the competition due to lower back pain.
- Shaunae Miller-Uibo, Bahamas (women’s 400): Competed in Budapest four months after giving birth but was eliminated in the heats.
- Athing Mu, USA (women’s 800): After going back and forth over whether to defend her title, Mu ran in Budapest and earned bronze.
- Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, USA (women’s 400 hurdles): Was focusing on the 400 this year anyway but withdrew from that due to a “minor knee issue.”
- Malaika Mihambo, Germany (women’s long jump): Did not compete at Worlds after tearing a muscle in her thigh.
- Nafissatou Thiam, Belgium (heptathlon): Broke pentathlon world record in March but did not compete in Budapest due to an Achilles injury.
Special shoutout to Jakob Ingebrigtsen and Joshua Cheptegei, both of whom have won three straight gold medals — but not in the same event. Ingebrigtsen won the 1500 in Tokyo and the 5,000 in Eugene and Budapest, while Cheptegei won the 5,000 in Tokyo and the 10,000 in Eugene and Budapest.
5) Four rule changes that need to be instituted for Tokyo 2025
The World Championships is the best of our sport, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved. We saw that with the elimination of time qualifiers in the distance races in Budapest, a change met with near-universal approval from the athletes. Here are four simple fixes (#2 was suggested by Robert Johnson and #3 and #4 by Weldon Johnson) that World Athletics needs to make for the next World Championships.
- Eliminate the World Championship marathons. The marathon is a cool way for the local organizing committee to show off the host city, and Budapest did a great job of that. But with so much action on the track, the marathons are often an afterthought at Worlds. And because Worlds is held in the summer, the conditions can be miserable for athletes. Plus, we’re not really crowning a world champion — many of the top marathoners skip Worlds. How many World Championship marathons has Eliud Kipchoge run? Zero.
- Get rid of the time qualifiers in all events and run nine-person 800 and sprint finals The elimination of the time qualifiers in the distance races was great. It was so much easier to just count places and know instantly who was in and out. The trend should be extended to the sprints and 800 as well. In the sprints and 800 semis, there are three heats of eight. Rather than take the top two finishers plus two time qualifiers to an eight-person final, the solution is simple — take the top three from each heat to a nine-person final.
- The meet needs to end with the 4×100 relays. World Athletics caught a break this year with the incredible ending to the women’s 4×400. But let’s face it — the 4x400s are usually blowouts because the American teams are so much better than the rest of the world. It’s an anticlimactic way to end the meet.
Switch it up and make the 4x100s the final event of the meet. The races are more entertaining, and because of the importance of the exchanges, there will always be drama even if there is a heavy favorite. Plus, because the 100 is a more star-driven event than the 400, you have a better chance at putting more big names on the track in the final race (Noah Lyles, Sha’Carri Richardson, Shericka Jackson, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, etc).
- Finalists should be allowed to pick their lanes. This is pretty simple. Right now, lanes are assigned semi-randomly. For example, in the 200 meters, the three semifinal winners are randomly assigned to lanes 5, 6, or 7; the next three seeds are given 3, 4, and 8; the last two are given 1 and 2. But what if someone has a strong preference between 5, 6, and 7? The fastest qualifier should get to pick his/her lane, with the rest of the field selecting in order behind them. This could even be done live when the athletes run out onto the track for the final.
6) On the mixed zone in Budapest
On August 27, Cathal Dennehy wrote a brilliant column on his attempts to ask Nigerian 100m hurdles world record holder Tobi Amusan about her provisional suspension for whereabouts failures, which was overturned just two days before the World Championships began. It was a question that Amusan was obviously going to be asked considering neither she nor the Athletics Integrity Unit had shared any details about the case since it was announced on July 18.
Yet when Dennehy and my boss Robert Johnson tried to discuss the case with Amusan after the first round in Budapest, she acted as if it was an insult to even be asked about one of the biggest stories in the sport. It was similar two days later when I spoke to Amusan after the final. After being asked about her stressful final month heading into Worlds, she told one reporter, “I can talk about it now.” I assumed that included the whereabouts case and asked what she could have done to be charged by the AIU in the first place.
“Why you always wondering when there’s a good interview going on?” Amusan replied.
“Because I don’t get the chance to ask these questions otherwise,” I told her.
“I’m sorry, I can’t answer your question,” Amusan said.
I got off easy. Dennehy — who, full disclosure, is a terrific journalist and a friend — was subject to a mountain of abuse from Amusan’s fans on Twitter. Even more concerningly, he was accused of racism by one credentialed journalist in Budapest and dismissively referred to as part of the “White Media” by another. (Again, read Dennehy’s piece for the gory details). When one journalist is being ripped by other “journalists” for doing his job, you know something is wrong in the mixed zone.
The way Amusan reacted to a difficult — but necessary — question made me think of a larger trend in the mixed zone in Budapest: the influx of content creators. By content creator, I mean someone like Tiara Williams of Real Talk with Tee or Katelyn Hutchison of Citius Mag.
Let’s take Williams as an example. She has a knack for getting athletes to open up to her. Just look at her interview with Shericka Jackson after the 200-meter final or Marcell Jacobs after he was eliminated in the 100 — the most personality I’ve ever seen from the Olympic 100 champ in an interview in English. That’s worthwhile content for track fans.
But “content creator” is not the same as “journalist.” It’s easier for athletes to feel relaxed around you when they’re met with positive questions and are asked to dance or strike a pose while ending an interview. Or when they tell an athlete they’re “anointed by God,” as Hutchison did to Sha’Carri Richardson in the medalists’ press conference following the 100 meters. But journalism is about covering the positive and negative aspects of the sport.
The result is that in the internet press section of the mixed zone — which includes content creators and any web journalists (like LetsRun.com) conducting video interviews — you’ve got two groups of people trying to do different jobs. And that can be confusing for athletes, many of whom, naturally, would rather only field the positive questions.
I’m not saying content creators are bad for the sport. Williams has plenty of supporters and her interviews showcase a different side of athletes than most track fans are used to seeing. But if World Athletics is going to continue issuing media credentials to content creators, it may want to consider taking a page out of USATF’s book.
At USAs this year, there was a “creator lounge” adjacent to the mixed zone where athletes could answer questions in a more relaxed setting. Why not do the same for the next Worlds in Tokyo? The mixed zone is already divided into a number of sections — live rights holders, non-live rights holders, written press, internet press. Adding an extra section for content creators would allow them to do their jobs and the journalists to do ours without stepping on each other’s toes.