Explaining Yared Nuguse's 1500m American Record

By Kyle Merber

June 21, 2023

When Yared Nuguse crossed the finish line in third place at the Bislett Games, his time – 3:29.02(!) – popped up on the screen alongside the letters “AR.” That doesn’t stand for “American record,” but rather “area record.” The area in question is North America, which is of course bigger than just regular America, since North America contains America. So one could reason then that this performance was also the American record, right? After all, all squares are rectangles.

Not exactly. (About the record… not about squares… I think that’s still true.) Everyone agrees that the American record is, or was, Bernard Lagat’s. The disagreement is over which Bernard Lagat result we’re talking about.

In 2004, Lagat ran 3:27.40 a few weeks before he represented Kenya at the Athens Olympics. Then in 2005, he announced that he had become a US citizen a few months before running that 3:27 and that he was switching his international allegiance, thus forcing him to sit out of that summer’s World Championships.

No matter. Lagat would go on to break Sydney Maree’s American record two weeks after Worlds, when he ran 3:29.40. An open and shut case, this result was soon ratified.

But in 2018 things got weird. Despite 14 years having passed since the performance, Lagat’s 3:27.40 was ratified as the American record. And you can blame Mondo Duplantis for the confusion – seriously.

You see, the greatest pole vaulter ever was born in Louisiana, but chose to represent his mother’s native Sweden. Before a relevant height had even been cleared, former American record-holder Jeff Hartwig had sounded the alarm, pointing out that according to USATF bylaws, any American citizen is capable of setting a national record, even if competing for a different country. And as Hartwig prophesized, that exact thing happened when Mondo cleared 6.05m at the European championships to set the American record, while wearing his Swedish uniform.

This series of events led to some closer inspection of the 1500m record, and Bernard Lagat became the American record holder, again – just faster.

I don’t believe that this policy is still on the books due to USATF wanting its Wikipedia page to be slightly more impressive. I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, and assume that some lawyers made this decision because technically it is how the rule was written.

The issue is that USATF does not automatically know the citizenship status of every single person in the world. It’s not like after Faith Kipyegon broke the 1500m and 5000m records, Max Siegel called her up just to confirm that she is not a US citizen.

If this sort of record ratification process were universally adopted by every other country’s athletics governing body, then certain Americans would certainly own other countries’ national records. For example, Roisin Willis chose to run for the United States despite having a claim to Irish citizenship – in this hypothetical she would hold the Irish 800m record. Clearly, that’s not the case.

But USATF is not the only outlier. For example, Julien Wanders, a dual citizen of both France and Switzerland, currently holds records in both countries.

Anyway, after both Lagat’s and Mondo’s records were reluctantly ratified, the rules were changed to prevent any future confusion – but not retroactively. Fortunately for the sake of clarity, the mark set by Mondo has since been surpassed multiple times by dudes who exclusively bleed red, white, and blue. Yared has his work cut out for him, though I am not discounting the possibility.

As fans of the sport, we want records to be broken because it brings attention and excitement to our athletes. The MAINSTREAM MEDIA won’t write an article about someone breaking the American Record*!. And I don’t see ESPN celebrating an area record anytime soon then spending precious airtime explaining all of this to its audience.

To be clear, the insistence that Nuguse is the American record holder has nothing to do with birthright vs. naturalized citizenship. In this ever-globalizing world, athletes are going to move around and switch teams. I just don’t think the Washington Wizards should retire Michael Jordan’s number.

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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.