By David Melly
September 6, 2023
Time flies when you’re having fun! It’s hard to believe that we only have two meets left in the 2023 Diamond League circuit, but here we are: the Memorial Van Damme meet held at the King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels, Belgium, kicks off Friday (technically Thursday with the women’s shot put) to bring us into the homestretch of the pro season before next weekend’s Prefontaine Classic.
For the most part, the major players are set for the Diamond League final in Eugene, but ambitious late-blooming athletes can still pick up a few ranking points in Belgium then hightail it across the Atlantic to compete for the final $30,000 prize in each event. And the absence of some of the sport’s heavy favorites will make for some interesting racing, particularly in the women’s distance events and the men’s sprints. And if rooting for the favorites is your thing, we still have Shericka Jackson in the 200m, Femke Bol in the 400m hurdles, and Jakob Ingebrigtsen back on the record hunt in the rarely-run men’s 2000m.
The action kicks off on Peacock (for U.S. viewers with a subscription) at 2pm E.T. on Friday, September 8. All the information you need as well as the key races to watch is below:
Must-Watch Event: Women’s 1500m
While it can be fun to watch Faith Kipyegon make a mockery of the competition and the record books in the women’s 1500m, the intrigue is far greater when she is not in the race. Without the greatest miler of all time in the field, the win is actively up for grabs, and without a guaranteed chaser of a fast pace, racers will have to make tactical decisions about how and when to attack earlier. 8 women in this field have run between 3:54 and 3:58 this year, and with many of the best runners from Ireland, Great Britain, Kenya, and Australia entered, it’s like a mini-Commonwealth Games for middle-distance fans. Someone like Kenyan Nelly Chepchirchir, fresh off a PB and a runner-up finish in Xiamen last weekend, could run away with this thing, but the travel from China to Belgium may take its toll. The fastest runner in the field by season’s best is Ethiopians Hirut Meshesha, but she didn't fare particularly well at Worlds, going out in the semifinal. Instead, someone like Laura Muir, who looked phenomenal running the 800m in Zurich, or Ciara Mageean, the Worlds 4th-placer, may be the biggest rivals Chepchirchir will have to face down. American fans will want to keep an eye on late addition Sinclaire Johnson to potentially move up the U.S, all-time list (she's currently #8) or Cory McGee to finally get under 4 minutes after running 4:00.x four times in the last two years. No matter who comes out on top, the closely-matched competition featured here will hopefully make for a thrilling and unpredictable race.
Must-Watch Athlete: Jakob Ingebrigtsen
We’ve seen what a healthy, confident Jakob Ingebrigtsen can do to the record books. What will a determined, vengeful Jakob look like returning to health and racing after a mystery illness impacted his Worlds performance? Will he be thrown off his game, or will he be more terrifying and laser-focused on dominance than ever before? Even before Worlds, the Memorial Van Damme website advertised Jakob “launching an attack” on the 24-year-old world record, so clearly we’re not the only ones who think that the Norwegian may be racing like a man on the warpath. And he’ll need every ounce of fight in him, because Hicham El Guerrouj’s 4:44.79 is a formidable record to chase. That’s a 3:46 mile with a 60-second 400m tacked on - or, more accurately to how it’s run, something like 5 laps at 3:33 1500m pace. According to World Athletics’s scoring tables, it’s equivalent to a 3:26.88 1500m - or 0.26 seconds faster than Ingebrigtsen’s PB, set earlier this year. Is it within reach? Absolutely. But it will take a version of Ingebrigtsen primed, ready, and focused on Brussels, rather than splitting his physical and mental energy between this race effort and the DL final next weekend. And the only person who knows where his head is at and what mindset will serve him best won’t let us know until Friday.
Must-Watch Comeback: Elaine Thompson-Herah
With all eyes on Shericka Jackson, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, and Sha’Carri Richardson, it’s almost too easy to forget that the 2x reigning Olympic champion in the 100 meters is still around. 31-year-old Elaine Thompson-Herah had a very quiet start to 2023 and missed a good chunk of spring training, which meant she did not enter the Jamaican championships in top form and only managed a 5th-place finish in the 100m, only making the Worlds team in the relay pool. But she’s quietly continued racing since Budapest and clocked a series of season’s bests, most recently a 10.92 victory in Switzerland this past weekend. 10.92 won’t put a real scare into the heavy hitters of the event these days, but as Thompson-Herah is almost certainly looking past 2023 into the Olympic year around the corner, continuing to rediscover her fitness and chip away at her season’s best times will only build momentum headed into a winter of (hopefully healthy) offseason training.
Sidenote for the stats nerds: This could also be a big career moment for Thompson-Herah as she has 59 career sub-11 clockings and could get her 60th in Brussels.
Must-Watch Called Shot: Shericka Jackson
For at least the last two years, Shericka Jackson’s quest to become the fastest 200m runner in history has increasingly become a question of when, not if, she surpasses Florence Griffith-Joyner’s 35-year-old 21.34 record. She has the 2nd, 3rd, and 5th fastest times on the list, and with a more favorable tailwind in Budapest last month, her 21.41 PB may have been even closer to the mark. But still it was a surprise to see Jackson announce with a fair bit of confidence that she was targeting the record in Brussels this weekend, rather than at Pre Classic next weekend or as a goal for 2024. For context, it’s quite unusual that times of that caliber are achieved outside a championship setting: the 8 fastest women’s 200m times all come from national championship, Worlds, or Olympic races. If Jackson gets the mark at a (technically mid-season) Diamond League meet, it will be something of an outlier, but the sharpening she did for Budapest is surely still in her legs two weeks later. And without someone like Gabby Thomas in the race to pressure her down the homestretch, the competition may not be as helpful as it could be - although after Jackson won Worlds by 4/10ths of a second, the only challenge worth mentioning may be her own history-making ambitions.
Must-Watch Wild Card: Mary Moraa
This won’t be the first 400m that 800-meter specialist Mary Moraa of Kenya runs this season, but it’ll be the first she races as the reigning World champion in the longer event. The 23-year-old has been determinedly working on her speed all season, racing the 400m four times, most recently at the Monaco Diamond League. She’s still got a ways to go before threatening the famed sub-50 second barrier, but she could take a big chunk off here. Moraa’s PB of 50.38 places her only 6th in this field, which means she’ll have plenty of strong runners to chase in Dutchwoman Lieke Klaver (49.81 PB), American Shamier Little (49.68 PB), and World bronze medalist Sada Williams of Barbados (49.58 PB). With the middle-distance runner Moraa moving down and hurdles specialist Little moving over, it’s a fun showcase for fans of “what if” scenarios matching up stars of different disciplines. And Moraa, who has become famous for her bold tactics in the two-lap race, won’t have the challenge (or advantage) of running in the pack with this one, but she’ll likely have plenty of fast starters to chase down in the final 100 meters.
Must-Watch Barrier: Men’s Pole Vault
The elusive 6-meter vault. Only 24 men in history have done it (including 3 this year and 5 in this field), but in the era of Mondo Duplantis, it’s increasingly seen as a measure of whether a male vaulter can even be considered a legitimate medal contender. With three men in Brussels coming off lifetime bests in Budapest, all the signs are pointing toward this talented field of jumpers being primed for a breakthrough. World silver medalist Ernest Obeina of the Philippines has been there before, but he’ll want to keep improving his own national and Asian records. Co-bronze medalist Kurtis Marschall of Australia has now twice jumped 5.95m and has to be hungry for that extra two inches. And Americans Sam Kendricks and Chris Nilsen will want to get back to the heights they’ve cleared in past years before the season ends. Duplantis will likely win, but how the places shake out behind him and how high they manage to push the bar before the field is cleared out will be quite something to watch.
Must-Watch American Hope: Elise Cranny
It’s not often that an American woman is a legit contender for a Diamond League victory in a distance event, but there’s a strong argument to be made that double U.S. champ Elise Cranny has a real shot headed into the women’s 5000m in Brussels. Sure, she’s not the fastest in this field by personal best - not even close, with Ethiopian Medina Eisa (14:16 PB) and Kenyan Lilian Kasait (14:23 PB) entered. But neither of those women ran those times in races they won; instead they were dragged along by the likes of Gudaf Tsegay and Faith Kipyegon. If you believe in the transitive property of racing, it’s worth noting too that Cranny had handily beaten the athlete who finished one spot behind Eisa in London, Alicia Monson, only a few weeks beforehand. Cranny is no lock for big money in this one, however. Highs like her double U.S. titles in Eugene and 4:16.47 mile PB in Monaco have been balanced out by a disappointing Worlds performance (9th in the 5000m and 12th in the 10,000m) and large gaps in between races earlier in the spring. And it’s entirely possible that Cranny runs great here and still gets beaten: although the field is not as strong as it will likely be next weekend, contenders like Eisa, Kasait, Karoline Grovdal of Norway, or Jessica Warner-Judd of Great Britain could all easily vie for the win. But U.S. track fans will still be cheering hard for Cranny and celebrating harder if she comes out of Brussels victorious.
David began contributing to CITIUS in 2018, and quickly cemented himself as an integral part of the team thanks to his quick wit, hot takes, undying love for the sport and willingness to get yelled at online.