Norwegian out-kicks world champ Cheruiyot in an Olympic 1500m final that also sees the first GB medal in this event since 1988
One of the most mouth-watering events of these Tokyo Games did not disappoint. Jakob Ingebrigtsen followed the red-hot pace set by world champion Timothy Cheruiyot before out-kicking the Kenyan to win his first global title in an Olympic and European record of 3:28.32.
In third, Josh Kerr became the first British medallist in this event since Peter Elliott in 1988 as he finished strongly to clock 3:29.05 just ahead of Kenya’s Abel Kipsang, who also broke 3:30 with 3:29.56.
Ingebrigtsen’s athletics journey famously began when he started training with an unusual degree of intensity with his older brothers, Henrik and Filip, in Norway. Many thought he would burn, but he just keeps getting better and the latest peak arrived on Saturday evening in Tokyo when he won one of the blue ribbon events of the Games.
Still only 20, Ingebrigtsen’s recent build-up was a little inconsistent. After a brilliant European 5000m record of 12:48.45 and victory in Florence in June, he suffered illness, dropped out of one or two races and was only third in the 1500m in Monaco a month before the Olympics.
But in Tokyo he was back to full fitness and powered past the fearsomely strong Cheruiyot coming into the home straight to win by 69 hundredths of a second.
“I’ve been able to do it (win gold) first try and I feel like I am just getting started,” said Ingebrigtsen triumphantly. “But at the same time, I have been dreaming of this for my whole life. It’s great.”
Kerr delivers medal he promised
Kerr predicted in an interview with AW on the eve of the Games that it would need a sub-3:30 performance to win a medal. He felt he was capable of it, too, and he lived up to his word with a well-judged race and strong finish to clock 3:29.05.
It takes him to No.2 on the UK all-time rankings behind Mo Farah’s 3:28.81 – and ahead of Seb Coe, Steve Cram, Steve Ovett, Elliott and Jake Wightman, the latter of whom finished a disappointed 10th in 3:35.09, one place behind fellow Brit Jake Heyward, who clocked 3:34.43.
Impressively, Kerr ‘recalibrated’ his mind after an underpar run in the heats where he only qualified for the semi-finals as one of the fastest losers. “I had to sort my head out and fight every step of the way and I’m proud of how I’ve done that and handled myself,” he said.
Born in Edinburgh, he has lived in the United States for a number of years now and is part of the Brooks Beasts team and coached by Danny Mackey, although he has worked closely with British Athletics in the build-up to Tokyo with complete focus on the Olympics and a total disinterest in the Diamond League and Continental Tour circuit.
He said: “It’s pretty surreal. It’s something you dream about for so long. It’s surreal when you are finally living that moment that you’ve dreamed about for so long. It hasn’t sunk in yet.”
The race began in surprising style with Cheruiyot deliberately settling into a position near the back instead of charging to the front. Keen to avoid a slow, tactical race and looking unperturbed, Ingebrigtsen went to the front instead and led through 400m in 56.1.
Cheruiyot then swept into the lead, though, as the runners braced themselves for a painful final kilometre. The Kenyan passed through 800m in 1:51.8 with Ingebrigtsen and Stewart McSweyn of Australia taking close order. At this stage Kerr was content to sit a little deeper in the pack in seventh, a couple of places behind Wightman.
At the bell Cheruiyot led at 2:33.6 with Ingebrigtsen hot on his heels and then a slight gap to McSweyn, who soon afterwards began to be passed by a number of rivals.
With 200m to go Cheruiyot still led and was driving for home but Ingebrigten was ominously sitting on his shoulder, poised to strike. A few metres behind, Kipsang was in third with Kerr now into fourth and looking good as Adel Mechaal of Spain and McSweyn followed a few strides behind.
With 120 metres to go Ingebrigtsen did not kick past suddenly but rather eased past the Kenyan. Behind, Kerr was similarly passing Kipsang but also had Cheruiyot in his sights.
With 20-30 metres to go, Ingebrigtsen glanced over his right shoulder a couple of times to check he was not in danger and then raised his fist in trademark fashion as he crossed the line.
Cheruiyot, who had only finished fourth in the Kenyan trials going into the Games due to a hamstring injury, suggested after the race that he felt the problem again in the latter stages of this race. Despite this he held on to silver as Kerr closed in on him.
“In the last 100 metres, I was feeling tired,” said Cheruiyot. “I was feeling my right hamstring so I didn’t manage to run to the finish line fast.”
But he added: “We ran good times in an Olympics. And I’m happy about the results of the day. Jakob is a good racer, he is a young athlete, he is coming fast, so I’m happy about the race. He’s a good racer and I want to say to him congratulations.
“This is the first time Jakob beat me – in a big event, at the Olympics. I know he was well-prepared and I’m happy for him.”
Such was the standard of this event, Olympic champion Matt Centrowitz did not make the final and US champion Cole Hocker wound up sixth despite some tipping him for a medal. The semi-finals also saw an Olympic record from Kipsang although that only lasted a couple of days before Ingebrigtsen improved it in the final.
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While Ingebrigtsen looked easy, though, this victory was hard fought. On the track he gives the impression of being the alpha male of the 1500m – as he holds himself full of confidence – yet he admitted to AW at the Diamond League in Gateshead in May that he suffers hugely from nerves before his races.
In his post-race interview in Tokyo he suggested similar too. “I’ve been struggling with eating for the last couple of weeks because I have been waiting so long for this race,” he said.
He is also far from being a one-man band either. His victory was a team effort that included not only his immediate family – his brothers and father and coach Gjert – but a wider support team too.
“This is not me winning this race. If it wasn’t for my brothers, my family and my fiancee, I wouldn’t be able to do any of this. It’s not just me it is a whole team around me that’s incredible.”
The remarkable details of his early specialisation in the sport and the years of tough training that began at an alarmingly early age are likely to be studied and poured over for years to come.