With the entire sports world — well, the entire world, period — stopped in its tracks due to COVID-19, sports fans have taken to reliving sporting events of years past. Whether rewatching the final round of last year’s remarkable Masters to re-doing NBA drafts of years past, these opportunities to look back in time have been cathartic in the light of the tragedy we’re seeing around the world.
I figured I’d use this space to explore some of track and field’s more underrated great races. These won’t always be the most famous competitions, but they’ll be ones with intriguing storylines that haven’t gotten their due in the annals of history.
Let’s start with the women’s 1500 meter final from the 2017 World Championships, a race that had it all — a star-studded field, built-up drama and a thrilling finish.
Things to remember before you re-watch the race:
Prior to 2016, Kenya’s Faith Kipyegon had been on the cusp of greatness. In 2015, she was the runner-up not just in the World Championships 1500 final but also in three Diamond League races. Kipyegon had her breakthrough season a year later, winning at three early-season Diamond League meets before claiming the Olympic gold medal with a dominant finishing kick in Rio.
Kipyegon started 2017 on a similar note with victories at the Shanghai and Eugene Diamond League contests.
But the 2017 World Championships in London wasn’t expected to be a cakewalk for the Kenyan miler.
The ever-present Sifan Hassan had joined Alberto Salazar’s training group in late 2016 and started her 2017 campaign on fire with two sub-3:57 1500 meter clockings (including the world-leading 3:56.14 from Hengelo) and a win over Kipyegon in Paris.
In addition to Genzebe Dibaba, Jenny Simpson, Laura Muir and the normal cast of characters in a 1500 meter championship race, the 2017 world final featured a wild card: Caster Semenya.
The controversial middle-distance runner from South Africa claimed her fifth global 800-meter title earlier in the London World Championships, earning a new personal best of 1:55.16 along the way. With that win under her belt, Semenya was taking on a task she had never previously attempted in a major championship – doubling back in the 1500 meters.
You can re-watch it here:
Unlike so many championship 1500 races, the pace didn’t dawdle at the start, thanks to Laura Muir’s proclivity for pushing the pace. The Brit went straight to the front and led through 400 meters in a respectable but not super fast 65.35 seconds.
Though the same two athletes — Muir and Kipyegon — continued to lead throughout the second lap, the pace slowed considerably to 71.79 seconds for the second circuit around the track.
As you can see, things really began bunching up, with a few of the notable contenders (Dibaba, Hassan, Semenya) hanging back but beginning to plot their moves to the front of the pack, while the always wily Jenny Simpson hung right on the heels of co-leader Kipyegon.
Just like any good Shakespearean play (this race was run in London, after all), you could sense the drama was building and building toward an epic climax.
That breaking point came at the 900 meter mark of the race when Hassan made a massive surge from the very back of the pack to the lead. Kipyegon and Simpson immediately responded and moved to the Dutchwoman’s shoulder.
The move by as serious a contender as Hassan was a signal to the field that they, too, needed to get in position. As Hassan reached the bell, Dibaba, too, had joined all the main contenders at the front.
The one marquee name not yet with the leaders was Semenya. At this point, you had to ask yourself: Would Semenya’s superior half-miler speed be able to overcome her lack of tactical experience at the 1500 meter distance?
Hitting the 1200 meter mark in 3:18.94 (the last 400 meters were run in 61.81 seconds), Hassan made another surge on the backstretch, a move that only Kipyegon and Muir attempted to go with.
Here is, in my view, the key tactical decision of the race. Recognizing Hassan’s surge was too much, Simpson backed off the pace slightly and allowed Muir to pass her for the time being, a judgment that proved to be a prudent one.
Hassan and Kipyeon battled for the lead around the bend, with the Dutchwoman holding the rail and the Kenyan running wide. They remained even until Kipyegon began pulling away decisively with about 60 meters to go to win her first world title to go along with gold in Rio a year earlier.
But as Kipyegon reached the finish, little did she recognize the drama playing out behind her.
With Hasan fading and drifting to the outside of lane one, Simpson sensed room to maneuver on the inside of lane one and surged through that opening. The American finished in second place, earning her fourth career global medal and securing her place as one of the most decorated distance runners in U.S. history.
Muir made up ground on Hassan but ultimately didn’t have enough to hold off the fast charging Semenya blazing by in lane three. Semenya pulled ahead of Muir just ahead of the finish to win a bronze medal. Sure, a 1500 meter bronze can’t compare with her five Olympic and World Championship golds in the 800 meters, but it does serve as a true testament to her remarkable talent and ability.
The final results:
- Faith Kipyegon, Kenya, 4:02.59
- Jennifer Simpson, United States, 4:02.76
- Caster Semenya South Africa (RSA) 4:02.90
- Laura Muir, Great Britain & N.I., 4:02.97
- Sifan Hassan, Netherlands, 4:03.34
- Laura Weightman, Great Britain & N.I., 4:04.11
- Angelika Cichocka, Poland, 4:04.16
- Rababe Arafi, Morocco, 4:04.35
- Meraf Bahta, Sweden, 4:04.76
- Malika Akkaoui, Morocco, 4:05.87
- Hanna Klein, Germany, 4:06.22
- Genzebe Dibaba, Ethiopia, 4:06.72
How the race has aged:
Looking back three years later, this race has aged pretty well. None of the top finishers have tested positive (yet).
Kipyegon gave birth to her first child in 2018 and came back strongly in 2019 to win a silver medal at the World Championships.
This race is notable because it’s likely the final championship race Semenya ever competes in. In 2018, the IAAF announced new policies requiring “athletes with differences of sexual development” to take medication to lower their testosterone levels. Curiously, the policy only applied to athletes competing in distances between 400 and 1500 meters, which cover Semenya’s specialty events, raising suspicion that these new rules were designed to specifically target the South African runner. Though the policy has been through several court decisions and appeals, none have allowed Semenya to return to competition without taking testosterone-lowering medication.
Hassan’s stock has only skyrocketed since this race. She had a remarkable 2019 season that saw her break the mile world record (4:12.33), set European records at 1500 (3:51.95), 3000 (8:18.49) and 5000 meters (14:22.12) and become the first person ever to win the 1500/10,000 meter double at the World Championships. Her achievements weren’t without controversy though. Her coach Alberto Salazar was banned for doping violations just prior to the World Championships, though Hassan has not herself been implicated in any of the offenses.
Muir, despite being a fan favorite in the UK-centric track and field fandom, still does not have a global championship medal in her trophy collection. Her inability to finish on the medal stand on the biggest stages has prompted plenty of Monday morning quarterbacking: Are her tactics ineffective? Is the 1500 the right event for her? Does she not have the killer instinct to get it done? Clearly Muir is among the world’s best and has the talent and worth ethic to be a podium finisher at championship races. Her shortcoming in the biggest races tends to be tactics. Muir’s decision to go with Hassan’s hard move on the backstretch of the final lap left her out of gas in the final 100 meters and ultimately off the medal stand.
This brings me to Jenny Simpson. While Muir went with that Hassan move, Simpson noticeably didn’t. While it meant she fell back into fourth place in the moment, it was clear what her thinking at the moment was: She knew couldn’t possibly cover that hard of a surge on the backstretch and still have anything left for the final kick.
“I wanted to be able to make it to the finish line because I was running so hard just to stay with that top group,” Simpson told reporters after the race. “I wanted to be able to preserve my ability to make it to the end.”
Though she had some ground to make up, Simpson’s discretion just moments earlier meant she had enough left in the tank to rev up her signature finishing kick to move past Hassan and Muir, hold off Semenya and nearly catch Kipyegon.
“I remember coming around the bend thinking I can see how hard Faith and Hassan are racing each other,” Simpson said. “I really believed I could get one of them if they’re working this hard this far out.”
She also had the savvy to identify an opening on the inside of lane one and immediately pounce on the opportunity to pass on Hassan’s inside. While Simpson humbly credited her coach Heather Burroughs for reminding her not to hesitate before making moves, Simpson herself must be acknowledged as well. Few athletes have the intuition to make snap judgments like that during a race. This sort of instinct can be improved and sharpened, but so often among the world’s most exceptional athletes, it’s simply an innate skill that cannot be taught.
“It’s years and years of knowing what I’m capable of. When they go super hard and I think, ‘That’s a little bit too much for me,’ I just trust it. I trust that I know the edge,” said Simpson. “I cannot explain how this always works out for me.”
No race better exemplifies Simpson’s tactical brilliance than this 2017 1500 meter final. Despite the fact she doesn’t come in first place, this is — in my view — Jenny Simpson’s greatest race.