World Athletics president reveals conversation in Eugene last year with Norwegian middle-distance runner ahead of the 2023 Laureus Sports Awards
Seb Coe says Jakob Ingebrigtsen’s reaction to his congratulatory handshake after his defeat in the world 1500m final last year was the moment he realised that no one was going to beat him in the subsequent global 5000m final.
Coe is a founder member of the Laureus Academy and speaking ahead of the 2023 Laureus Sports Awards where Ingebrigtsen is a contender in the ‘comeback of the year’ category, Coe recalls a revealing conversation with the Norwegian last summer.
“I was standing in the tunnel at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon during the World Athletics Championships last July,” he remembers. “The medal ceremony for the men’s 1500m was about to take place and my job as President of World Athletics allowed me this privileged position. Also present: the surprise gold medallist, Jake Wightman, and the favourite he had relegated to the silver-medal position, Jakob Ingebrigtsen.
“As well as my role at World Athletics, and my membership of the Laureus World Sports Academy, I am also Chancellor of Loughborough University. Wightman is a Loughborough graduate, I’ve known him for years and he had just ran the race of his life – I was thrilled for him. But I also know Ingebrigtsen, we’re good friends, and I wanted to speak to him at what I knew would be a painful moment for him. It was only as I reached him in the tunnel that I realised I didn’t know what to say.”
Coe says he awkwardly offered the words ‘great race’ along with a handshake but Ingebrigtsen replied with a steely glare, ‘no, it wasn’t. I was sh**.”
Coe continues: “In that moment, I was convinced he was going to win gold over 5000m in five days’ time.
“Sure enough, after that second final, we were in the same location, the difference being Ingebrigtsen was about to receive a gold medal. I reminded the great Norwegian of his terse response after defeat over 1500m. He could see the funny side now, but I also had a more serious point to make.
Coe says he told Ingebrigtsen ‘that 5000m tells me everything about you as an athlete. More than any individual title you will win over 1500m. It tells me you have the mental resilience to process the defeat quickly. You knew you had fallen below what you are capable of and you were never going to let the next chance pass you by’.”
Coe of course was speaking from considerable experience. At the 1980 Olympics he made a spectacular comeback from 800m defeat at the hands of Steve Ovett to win the 1500m title, whereas in 1984 he was struggling with illness but got himself into shape to win 800m silver behind Joaquim Cruz before successfully defending his 1500m crown a few days’ later.”
On Moscow, he remembers: “My father was also my coach. He started life as a mathematician, then he became an engineer. Numbers came naturally to him. We were sitting together in the days before the 1500m final, and he said to me: ‘This is so simple. Given the number of mistakes you made, over the distance you ran, and the frequency with which you made them, it is statistically impossible for you to screw up that badly again’.
“That was his team talk – that was the only conversation I had with him!”
What’s Coe’s advice to athletes who might find themselves in a position where they need to mount a comeback? “Be a student of the history of your sport – the answers are all there,” he says. “And have people around you who you trust. When they give you the unvarnished truth, engage with them. Great athletes crave criticism.”
Ingebrigtsen is in the running for the Laureus world comeback of the year award but other contenders include motorcycle racer Francesco Bagnaia, cyclist Annemiek Van Vleuten, golfer Tiger Woods, basketball player Klay Thompson and footballer Christian Eriksen.
Other track and field athletes in the running for Laureus awards this year are Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone (sportswoman of the year), Mondo Duplantis (sportsman of the year), Tobi Amusan (breakthrough of the year) and Catherine Debrunner (sportsperson with a disability).
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