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Athing Mu’s Win Symbolizes a Transforming Landscape in Track & Field

19-year-olds Mu and Hodgkinson took gold and silver in the women’s 800m, ushering in a new era of track and field.

At just age 19, Athing Mu of the United States and Keeley Hodgkinson of Great Britain sent shockwaves across the running world when they went 1-2 in the Olympic women’s 800m final. Mu’s time of 1:55.21 tops the American women’s record book and makes her the 11th fastest woman in history in the distance. (Hodgkinson sits at number 26 with her Olympic final time of 1:55.88.) Not only are the runs phenomenal feats in their own right, they also symbolize the new age of track and field in which a fresh generation of track stars have taken center stage. 

Athing Mu crossing the line of the women's 800m in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Athing Mu’s winning 800m time of 1:55.21 tops the American women’s record book and is the 11th fastest time in history over the distance. Great Britain’s Keeley  Hodgkinson, who finished second, clocked a 1:55.88.  Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

A Rapidly Changing Landscape 

It’s true that Mu (and Hodgkinson for that matter) may be something of a protégé. Mu dominated the event looking like an Olympic veteran despite it being her first Olympic Games. But she isn’t the only athlete under 25 to steal the show in Tokyo. Her teammate Raevyn Rogers, just 24, snagged a bronze medal at her own first Olympics. 

But their performances seem a harbinger of a changing landscape in track and field that looks radically different from even two years ago. Take for example the rise of Cole Hocker who, at just 20, usurped the 2016 1500m olympic gold medalist Matthew Centrowitz in the American Olympic Trials. At 31, Centrowitz made his first Olympic final (London, 2012) when Hocker was just 11. Both will have a hard time defeating the 20-year-old Norwegian star Jakob Ingebrigtsen who finished 3rd in the 1500m in Monaco in 3:29.25 despite recovering from an illness. 

The 5,000m and 10,000m, too, have become increasingly stacked with new names in their early- to mid-20s. America’s Grant Fisher (24), Elise Cranny (25), Karissa Schweizer (25), Canada’s Justyn Knight (25), and Uganda’s Jacob Kiplimo (20) are all names that have headlined the distance events. Fisher, for instance, placed a surprising 5th in the 10k amidst seasoned professionals, world champion medalists, and world-record holders while Kiplimo already added a 10k bronze medal to his burgeoning career. 

Cole Hocker and Matthew Centrowitz race to the finish of a 1500m race.
Cole Hocker and Matthew Centrowitz race to the finish of the men’s 1,500 Meter Run Final during day ten of the 2020 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials at Hayward Field on June 27, 2021 in Eugene, Oregon. Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The Cause of the Shift

Part of this may be chalked up to the extra year provided by the COVID-19 pandemic. “Without competition I was just able to get a lot stronger up the mileage a little bit, become more consistent, and then when it came time to race I think I was just so much stronger than I was before,” Knight, who will compete in the men’s 10,000m final told PodiumRunner in a recent interview

Although it was just a 12-month postponement, the pandemic helped to slightly morph the track and field racing scene by giving younger runners like Mu, Fisher, Hodgkinson, Knight, and Cranny extra time to develop their athletic prowess and removing athlete’s nearing the end of their careers one more year away from their “prime.”  Furthermore, for veteran runners who bid the time since the last olympiad training vigorously to peak for one last Olympic Games in 2020, the extra year may have contributed to fizzle they couldn’t afford. 

36-year-old Molly Huddle, for example, told Erin Strout in May, before she had to withdraw from the U.S. Olympic track trials, that the extra time, “was probably a net negative for me… I do feel like there was some extra pounding and grinding on my body that I didn’t need and I wasn’t getting the body work I should have during COVID. That did take a toll.”

Among the other big veteran names who didn’t make it to this Olympic Games include 1500-meter specialist Jenny Simpson (who, at age 34, has qualified every year since 2008 up until this olympiad), 32-year-old steeplechaser Evan Jagger (out with an injury), and a former American 1,500m and 5,000m record holder Shannon Rowbury (36) who pulled out of the U.S. Trials.

In both the men’s and women’s 800, two out of three American athletes were new faces from the 2016 Games. Nearly every athlete representing the U.S.A in the Olympic 1,500m this year was a first-time Olympian, save for Centrowitz. Across all five of the mens’ and womens’ mid-distance to distance events (800m, 3000m steeplechase, 1,500, 5,000, and 10,000m) on Team USA, there are seven out of 30 returning athletes (Clayton Murphy, Matt Centrowitz, Hilary Bor, Paul Chelimo, Ajee’ Wilson, Emma Coburn, Courtney Frerichs).

But of course, this is all speculation and perhaps over-analysis on something that is simply the spinning wheel of time. Ultimately, the passing of the torch from one generation to the next is nature taking its course, and how the Olympics has always progressed. Perhaps the extra year just served to enhance the appearance of the continuous, collective transformation process.