Athing, Keely, Mary Moraa and The Thrill of The 800m Crown

By Kyle Merber

August 30, 2023

The chase for the crown between Athing Mu, Keely Hodgkinson, and now-reigning queen Mary Moraa featured a well-developed plot that made for one of the most intoxicating matchups in Budapest. And it delivered! Maybe even more than fans expected, thanks to a hard and arguably too fast pace from the gun. Especially for American fans, as much as this was a race between these three women, it also felt like there was a second internal battle going on between Athing Mu and her demons.

Over the last year, it became quite evident that the precocious American star was no longer enjoying the sport or the limelight that came with her success as much as she once had. Mu is super charming and personable, yet her relationship with the pressure of being a 19 year old Olympic champion seems complicated. She lamented to a scrum of media, “are we ever going to be enough?” Compare that to Hodgkinson, who when asked how it felt being a part of one of the most anticipated races of the championship said, “I think it’s absolutely sick to be honest, I really enjoy it.”

My hope for Mu’s own personal relationship with the sport is that she finds a love for running again because her talent and presence has the ability to attract new fans and transcend beyond it. If you’ve never lost before then it’s understandable why it might be built up to be the end of the world. But life goes on and no one will stop cheering or supporting an athlete because she won a bronze medal. In fact, the opposite is probably true!

Enjoying track exists on a spectrum between two points: loving to train and loving to compete. Some athletes thrive off the day-to-day monotony of time in the forest, the simplicity of an altitude camp, or the process of one-upping previous workouts. Then there are others who can’t stand any of that and only do it out of obligation between the occasional adrenaline shot straight to the heart that is racing.

One of my go-to questions in long-form interviews is to learn where an athlete views themselves plotted between these two points. It’s insightful to know how their minds work, and that hopefully creates a connection with fans. Athletes should know if they identify as a runner or a racer – this can shift as a season progresses, though it ultimately requires a balance.

Much is made of what happens in the mixed zone and that’s mainly because it is the one chance that we as fans have to get an idea of the stories behind the performances. Understandably, not every athlete wants to talk to every member of the media. Trust me, I was respectfully turned down by plenty of athletes last week who had no familiarity with who I am and what I am about.

The death march through the mixed zone can put athletes in a particularly vulnerable position just moments after stepping off the track. They’re still trying to process what happened for themselves, and now have to work out those feelings aloud, to a sea of strangers, with cameras shoved in their face. It is why I appreciate Athing stopping to address the assembled members of the press, especially knowing her current and complex relationship with them.

Witnessing someone so young break records and ascend to the top of the sport made Athing seem otherworldly. Her combination of speed, strength, and an effortless stride was difficult to relate to as it all seems to come so naturally to her. But having a complicated relationship with running? Now that is something we can all relate to!

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Kyle Merber

After hanging up his spikes – but never his running shoes – Kyle pivoted to the media side of things, where he shares his enthusiasm, insights, and experiences with subscribers of The Lap Count newsletter, as well as viewers of CITIUS MAG live shows.