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December 26, 2018

CITIUS MAG Athlete of the Year – The Case For…Jakob Ingebrigtsen

We’ll be announcing our CITIUS MAG Male and Female Athletes of the Year on Dec. 31. Over the next few days, our bloggers will be making cases for their own respective picks before we vote as a team. David Melly leads us off with his case for Jakob Ingebrigtsen.

“What was the most impressive thing you did when you were 17?”

This question kept us entertained for a solid 20 minutes in the middle of watching the Pre Classic at a house party this past May (If you don’t have friends who put the Pre Classic on at their house parties, then you need new friends). The best I could offer was doing decently well on my SATs and winning a few conference titles as a junior in high school. I didn’t even get my driver’s license until I was 18.

The question was raised because Jakob Ingebrigtsen, the speedsuit-clad Norwegian teenager, had just walked down several of the world’s best middle distance runners to finish fourth in the Bowerman Mile in 3:52.28 – just over a second faster than Alan Webb’s mind-boggling run at the same event 17 years earlier. When Webb ran 3:53, Jakob was just over eight months old.

For a runner who has accomplished so many remarkable feats at such a young age, it’s almost too easy to overlook the youngest Ingebrigtsen. (We’ve been very tempted to start calling him Youngebrigtsen and his brothers as Middlebrigtsen, Oldebrigtsen but we didn’t know how funny that would be.)  He has no senior national records, because he’s not even the fastest person in his family at any distance besides the 3,000-meter steeplechase, which he ran at the 2017 IAAF world championships but did not compete in once in 2018. He didn’t win a single Diamond League event and “only” landed fourth on the 1,500 and mile world lists.

But still he remains a phenomenon. Last year, he became the youngest person ever to break four minutes in a mile. This year, he blew the doors off his previous personal bests and closed the gap on his brothers Filip and Henrik by running 3:31 in the 1,500 meters and 13:17 in the 5000 meters. To have run so fast at such a young age is typically unheard of outside the ranks of East African runners.

So why is he in the conversation for athlete of the year? Well, for me, it boils down to one weekend in mid-August. The performance came at an event that most American track fans disregarded entirely. At the 2018 European Championships in Berlin, Jakob Ingebrigtsen won both the 1,500 meters and the 5,000 meters on consecutive days and beat not only his brothers but a handful of other international medallists in the process.

To clarify, Jakob won the senior championships, not the juniors, in two events and set a personal best in the latter. Not only did he take home the hardware, but he looked supremely comfortable doing. At one point, he offered his brother, Henrik, a high five in the early laps of the 5,000 meters. Jakob Ingebrigtsen was no longer the upstart young prodigy: he had arrived as an international champion.

For someone so young to be so high-achieving and so consistent is nearly unprecedented. His critics will argue that many Kenyans and Ethiopians accomplish similar feats at a young age with far less fanfare, but systems that enable rampant age-cheating and little doping control often place large asterisks on those results. Jakob is a new kind of athlete, one for whom we don’t have a fitting pre-existing narrative and this enables him to capture our attention and redefine the sport in new and exciting ways.

It’s appropriate that one of the preeminent athletes of 2018, an “off year” with no Worlds or Olympics, be someone who represents the future as much as the present. People rarely become their best selves at age 17. If I were a betting man, I’d wager that although 2018 was in many ways a banner year from the youngest Ingebrigtsen, we’ll be looking back on it in years to come as just the beginning.

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