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On the Tokyo Women's 800m: a LEGENDS GALA!!!
I am feeling painted into a corner because I said I would write about my thoughts on the distance running events at the Olympics this week, but I don’t know that I have anything interesting to say. Also I feel like most of my readers don’t know very much about track at all, so so much of my word count will need to go to explaining what anything even is and why it matters to me.
One thing to know before reading any further is that I will not be looking anything up in writing this amazing piece of art because that feels incongruous to my creative spirit. So don’t be mad at me if I get a stat slightly wrong, be actually impressed with me that I was close.
(NOTE: I meant to write about a few different races in this post but I started with the women’s 800m and it took so long that I will have to write about the others in a different post if I feel like it).
Firstly, one thing you need to know about ME, and how I AM, is that I get slightly more excited about women’s running then men’s running. I think I do for the same reason that growing up I couldn’t play Mario Party as anyone but Peach, or Mortal Kombat unless I was Mileena or Kitana or Jade or once in a while Sonja. It’s the same reason Storm is my favorite X-men character and my favorite shows were Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Alias; The reason I can only root for female players in Survivor and watched WWE for the DIVAS and only the DIVAS. When you are a young closeted gay boy and there is a woman who is rising to a CHALLENGE, that is sooo electrifying. To all my scientist readers: pls figure out how come!!!!
The first thing you should know (besides everything else I’ve already said), is that when I talk about running I am generally referring to distance running, which is any event 800m and up. 800m is two laps around a standard track, and about half a mile. It is actually not very long and to be very good at it you have to be a good sprinter as well.
I guess I’ll talk about the medals. The US distance women won 4 medals in Tokyo and the men won 1. If those don’t seem like high numbers, it’s because they actually aren’t. Especially when compared to other numbers. For instance there are numbers as high as 9,854,765,982 or even 40. With this in mind, you can really sense how “4” and “1” is not a lot. This is how numbers are.
That’s sort of what makes US distance running fun to follow though, because we are kind of bad at it when compared to countries like Kenya and Ethiopia and in some respects Japan and more recently Uganda. In a lot of events longer than 800m the top US runner might be 200m back from the top three by the time they reach the final lap. In fact some years it feels like no one on Team USA will ever win a medal ever again at certain distances. Do you remember the women’s 10,00m in Rio 2016!??! Of COURSE you don’t because you don’t even KNOW what I’m talking about. Molly Huddle ran maybe 9 seconds faster than any American woman had ever run in herstory and finished about a MINUTE behind the leaders. That, sweetheart, is disheartening.
Sprinting (events 400m and shorter) is different and I think Americans win medals in those events near constantly. But once you get to 800m and up, it starts getting rlly hard.
But again that’s what makes it FUN. Since it is sort of rare, when it feels like an American has a chance at medalling (at 800m and up) it is EXCITING and feeling excited is an amazing way to give your brain something to do while you exist. Existing can be absolutely insufferable, but if something exciting happens, it isn’t for 1 to 3 seconds.
So this is something I have found the ability to get excited about. I just can’t think too much about why you care if someone I’ve never met runs in circles faster than someone else I’ve never met, and whether or not they are given a lil disc with a ribbon around it so they can where it as a necklace if they want (but probably never will). If you do (think too hard about it) you realize it is meaningless and also you realize that everything is meaningless and there is no point to doing anything at all ever.
Of all the distance events, the US’ strongest team was easily in the women’s 800m. Our team was Athing Mu, Ajee Wilson and Raevyn Rogers. They? Are all ICONS in their own rite! When three women are all icons in their own rite? THAT is the best case scenario, I feel.
At the last World championships in 2019 (basically the same thing as the Olympics but no cardboard beds) Rogers got silver and Wilson got bronze, which is a big deal because of the thing I just said about medals being exciting (don’t think too much about it!!!). It was sort of a random result because Wilson had objectively been the best women’s 800m runner in the world that year, and the best in the US for the last handful of years. Rogers was Wilson’s training partner at the time and had never beaten her. It seemed foregone that Wilson would get Gold (RARE for an American even though the 800m isn’t that long!) and Rogers would have a decent shot at silver or bronze. But Wilson had an off race and faded in the last 100m, getting passed by Rogers and Ugandan Halimah Nakaayi who took the surprise Gold.
It felt like a fluke at the time but now it feels like not-a-fluke, because Wilson hasn’t seemed like the best 800m runner in the world or even the US ever since, tbh. I am a big Ajee Wilson stan. She went to high school in New Jersey and was historically fast and went pro after she graduated. She was very much the future of the American women’s 800m and has for all intents and purposed]s lived up to her potential over the past 7 years. I think that she is about 25 now. She became the American record holder in the event in 2017 and is very very talented.
But then Athing Mu happened!!!! Mu is currently 19 and ALSO from New Jersey (parallels!) And her parents immigrated here from South Sudan. She crashed onto the scene (for me, personally) a few years ago at the USA indoor championships (a meet that you sort of care about but ultimately don’t really care about) when she was like a junior in high school. She raced the pros at 600m and shocked them with a win and I think maybe an American record but I might be making that up. In that race she beat Raevynn Rogers who had just turned pro after winning NCAA titles and setting NCAA records for the University of Oregon and joined Ajee Wilson’s training group in Philadelphia. Rogers, as I mentioned, would go on to be the 2nd best 800m in the WORLD that year. And the high schooler year old Mu BEAT her at 600m (almost 800m but a lil less)!!!! It was soooo fun, for me.
So Ajee Wilson and Athing Mu were both competitive with pros while still in high school, and you may think that is somewhat common, but it is not!! It is rare, actually. That’s why it was cool having BOTH of them on the same Olympic team this year—because it was like: OMG it’s both of them!!!!
Mu didn’t make the team for the 2019 world championships where Wilson and Rogers both medalled, but over the past year she has had an absolutely mind blowing freshman season at Texas A&M that saw her set NCAA records and win a national title at her secondary event (400m). Because she only raced collegians all year, she never really had anyone pushing her in the 800m — she was simply too good! Despite the lack of competition she ran insane times, so you were always like “OK, that was rlly fast, but she didn’t even have to try hard, so how fast is she ACTUALLY?”
Mu left the NCAA ranks after her historic freshman year and went pro in the beginning of the summer. It seemed like she would finally be pushed by competition from professionals at the Olympic trials in June. Wilson and Rogers were both in the race and they are reigning world medallists (medals are important unless you think about it). But that didn’t happen. Wilson and Rogers, even, weren’t good enough to give Mu a scare. She beat them and every other US 800m runner easily, running 1:56 (just half a second of Wilson’s American record), looking extremely comfortable the whole time. Rogers was the closest to Mu, taking second. Wilson got 3rd ( the top 3 qualify), but with 50 meters to go, it looked like she wasn’t even going to make the team. It was the first time I really felt like Ajee Wilson wasn’t her former self.
So going into these Olympics it was sort of like: Rogers looks solid and could absolutely medal, Wilson is a big question mark, at her best theoretically she’s a threat for gold but it’s not really clear what’s been going ON with her, and the 19 year-old Mu (rlly young!!) has not been able to find a human fast enough to give her a good race yet this year.
There are 3 rounds of the 800m at the Olympics — so you have to run fast enough in 2 races prior in order to qualify for the final, which only 8 women can run in. Mu looked incredible in her first round and her semi-final, and Rogers looked strong. Wilson got through her first round OK but then was eliminated in the semi final. It is sort of shocking to see someone who was the best in the world suddenly unable to make a final and I got extra anxiety for her because of Mu. Like, it makes me sad when someone’s really good at something and then a younger person starts getting better than them at it. But that’s a “me” thing and not a “track” thing.
When the final came the biggest question mark for me was: Can Mu run well after rounds? For the entirety of the regular season you show up to meets and just run one race, which Mu had done flawlessly. But running 3 races in a week at a championship meet like this affects some more than others, and seemed liked the only variable that could potentially keep Mu from Gold. Or perhaps would her youth come into play and would the pressure of being a prodigy be too much of a burden an affect her performance?
It seemed definite that we would SOME medal from Mu, and with Rogers in the race too it felt reasonable that we could maybe get 2!!! That is SO good if you don’t think about it too hard!!!!
The gun went off in the final and Mu went straight to the front. She didn’t go out super hard, but no one seemed to want to go past her. She looked comfortable for the first 400m with Jamaica’s Natasha Goule sitting on her shoulder, followed by the rest of the pack. Rogers was hanging out in 7th. That’s not uncommon for her, she typically goes out pretty conservatively and winds up for a big finishing kick.
Mu went through the first lap in 57 seconds, high. Her best time headed into the race was her 1:56 from the Olympic trials in June. Everyone was still right behind her but she seemed completely composed and in control. When a 19 year old is composed in a stressful situation, it makes me rethink everything I THOUGHT I knew about being 19. In the first half of the second lap Mu stretched out her lead by just a few meters on the back straightaway. Goule tried to go with her but began to fade. When Mu hit the 200m mark on her second lap, with only half a lap left to race, she picked it up again, and this time no one could respond. Like in every 800m race she’s run this season, Athing Mu the 19 year old ran away from the entire Olympic field with seemingly little effort. Her finishing time - 1:55.22 — eclipsed Wilson’s 2017 mark and became the new AMERICAN RECORD.
Meanwhile Rogers was still in 7th place with 100m to go, and appeared out of the hunt for a medal. BUT she had an insane kick to pass 4 runners in the last 10 seconds of the race, just barely getting nipping UK’s Jemma Reekie at the line for bronze. SO we got two medals! Isn’t that THRILLING! Doesn’t that give your brain something to be excited about for a couple seconds??!?! Doesn’t that feel meaningful?? If you don’t think about it too hard??
Athing Mu is a very exciting athlete because she’s so young and she still seems to have never been truly pushed in an 800m race. It feels like we still don’t even know how fast she could CURRENTLY run, never mind how fast she could maybe be when she’s, idk, a powerful age like 25.
I try to be careful to avoid that sort of thinking though — to only enjoy performances of my favorite athletes because of what they suggest those athletes might be able to do in the future. It’s sort of tempting but I think it is a bit of a thief of joy. Because truthfully running development is a very unpredictable process and it really is never a given that any athlete will ever improve or even maintain their current level of fitness, so it’s important to enjoy the performances as they happen. After all, after Wilson ran her American record my first thought was: maybe this means she can win Gold in Tokyo!!! But fast forward 4 years and she, for whatever reason, was suddenly unable to even make the final, and gold went to a different American who’s name I didn’t even know back then.
Wilson never won Olympic or world champs gold—which, to be fair, is in part because her best competitive years happened in the era of athletes such as Caster Semenya and Francine Niyonsaba: all time greats who are currently banned from competing in the women’s 800m because of new(ish) rules regarding testosterone level limits in the women’s category. This affects the women’s 800m more than any other race and deserves mentioning, but I don’t feel smart of insightful enough to write about it in a very meaningful way. I wish that they had been in the race in Tokyo, and I hope that the rules change.
It would be very interesting to see Mu against Caster Semenya because it seems like with better competition she could certainly be pushed below her 1:55.22 American record, and perhaps even approach the world record which I believe is somewhere in the low 1:53’s. But maybe she won’t! Maybe she won’t make the final in Paris 2024 and there won’t really be any reason why except for that running is very unpredictable.
So I will just have fun thinking about the fact that Mu DID win gold in THIS Olympics and ran 1:55.22 and THAT is very fast and COOL even if she never runs close to that time again.
I hope that this isn’t the end for Wilson. I want to see her run in at least one more global 800m final. It will make me sad for her if she doesn’t. Regardless, she will go out a legend. I hope she knows that. I don’t know why I get so invested in runners. I feel like I know them, which I famously don’t. Once I’ve watched them for close to a decade, the way I have Wilson, I get very sad for them if they aren’t running well. But then I get SO happy when they DO run well again and THAT is what is the MOST fun. Like what if WILSON wins Gold in Paris??? Wouldn’t that be SO fun and SO exciting??? If you don’t think about it too hard???
FOLLOW OUR OLYMPIC WOMEN’s OLYMPIC TEAM ON IG:
Athing Mu: https://www.instagram.com/athiiing/
Ajee Wilson: https://www.instagram.com/ajeelenee/
Raevyn Rogers: https://www.instagram.com/raealex35/