“Oh my god,” whispered Jake Wightman after pulling off the biggest heist of these World Championships in Athletics. “Oh my.” Shock and awe were etched on his face, in those rapidly dilating pupils and rapidly widening jaw. But could you blame him? The 28-year-old from Nottingham suddenly accepted his first major world medal. And it was gold.
As Eugene’s small British contingent began celebrating the country’s first 1500m world title since Steve Cram in 1983, the giant screen at Hayward Field suddenly switched to the stadium announcer. “I have to tell you why the camera is on me,” said Geoff Wightman, a former top marathon runner and the voice of stadium athletics for decades. “He’s my son. I train him. And he’s the world champion.
Somehow, Wightman held back his tears for a moment that was sure to go down in broadcast and elite sports history. But, as he later revealed, he had been preparing for it most of his life. “I’ve been doing his sports day at school since he was about 11 because my wife is his PE teacher,” he later explained.
“We just brought it to slightly bigger stadiums, slightly bigger crowds and slightly bigger medals. But it was surreal to see him win the gold. I thought: I know this guy. He looks familiar.
But make no mistake: this is Britain’s most surprising gold medal in the 39-year history of the world championships. Admittedly, UK Athletics did not expect this. Because he had already booked Wightman on a return flight Wednesday at 6:35 p.m. local time – an hour after the 1500m medal ceremony was due to take place. Although luckily for Wightman it was hastily rearranged at 30 minutes into his run.
Over the years, everyone knew Wightman had talent – as well as a mulish kick finish. But so far all he had to show for his efforts was two bronze medals at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and the European Championships. He was the Mr Nice and the Mr Nearly Man of athletics. Everyone loved him. But no one feared him.
That meant he started as an underdog in a stellar field that included the Olympic 1-2-3 of Jakob Ingebrigtsen, Timothy Cheruiyot and Josh Kerr – as well as Abel Kipsang, the fastest man in the world in 2022. A year ago in Tokyo, Wightman finished 10th in such elated company, but in the depths of winter, father and son hatched a daring plan to toughen up Jr.
It forced Wightman to swallow his pride and compete in more cross-country and 3,000m races — events well outside of his comfort zone — so that when he reached that final in Eugene, he would retain the strength in his legs and could unleash his 1min 44sec 800m speed when it really mattered. And on a day when temperatures soared into the 90s, the plan worked like a beautiful dream.
Wightman kept close contact with the leaders as Kipsang, who hadn’t lost a race all season, led and then fell back 700m. It was then that Ingebrigtsen, the Olympic champion and the fastest man on the board, took over and continued. But the pace was never fast enough to dull Wightman’s speed and with 200m to go he struck for glory.
First he flew over Cheruiyot, the 2019 world champion. Then, without slowing down, he also got rid of Ingebrigtsen. And as he crossed the line in 3:29.23, his dad called him home. “Jake Wightman just had the ride of his life,” he said, before telling the 15,000 onlookers, “My voice is gone.”
Ingebrigtsen was second in 3:29.27, followed by Spaniard Mohamed Katir just over half a second behind. The other Briton in the race, Kerr, was never really threatened before finishing fifth. But he showed considerable class afterwards, warmly congratulating his friend as he lay on the track before lifting him to his feet.
“The only benefit of having a good 800m PB in a race like that is if you’re there with 200m to go,” said Wightman, whose win ended a seven-medal streak. gold successive 1500m runners born in Kenya. “I knew the odds were getting more in my favor later in the race. I felt strong but Jakob is a beast and I didn’t know if he was going to come back. But it never happened and I am world champion.
Later, when asked what he thought of his father’s comment, Wightman Jr smiled: “He can be a bit of a robot at the mic sometimes – some people say robot, some say professional. I hope it broke down today. It will be interesting to see it again. My mother was in tears, someone was crying! Sr. Wightman’s response? “I have to be impartial otherwise, long after he’s gone, I won’t be allowed to comment on the 1500m.”
He also barely had time to take it all in before returning to comment on the men’s 400m hurdles final 15 minutes later, where another Norwegian Olympic champion, Karsten Warholm, was also beaten.
But the pride was clearly in his voice when his son finally took the top step of the podium a few minutes later. “Gold medalist and representing Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Jake Wightman,” he said.
It sounded like he had a lump in his throat. But one crazy night in Eugene, he was far from alone.
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