The future played out in the space of two minutes on Tuesday evening at the Olympic stadium, when the women’s 800m final gave a glimpse of the next decade for women’s middle distance running.
The gold and silver went to a couple of happy-go-lucky 21st-century kids, Athing Mu, of the USA, won the race in 1min 55.21sec, and Great Britain’s Keely Hodgkinson was a few strides behind, second in 1min 55.88sec. They are both 19. And now they are both national record holders, too. Mu took four-10ths off the mark set by Ajee Wilson in 2017, Hodgkinson broke one posted by Kelly Holmes six years before she was born.
Mu is now the 11th fastest woman in history over the distance, Hodgkinson the 26th. There were moments afterwards when they looked, talked, and acted like the teenagers they still are. Mu burst into giggles at the start of her press conference when she accidentally started clapping for herself when the MC read out her list of achievements. Hodgkinson said she wanted to celebrate with one “guilt-free night in a club”, a night “in one of the posh seats at Old Trafford”, and said she hopes she will get to meet her hero Tom Daley in the athletes’ village before the end of the week.
Out on the track, you would never have known they were so inexperienced. Mu took the lead after the break, and held it right through to the finish. She said she was not only front-running but wanted to put herself in the best position to respond to what other athletes were doing. “The whole race I was just conscious of what was going on around me, if anything happened I was going to attack it,” she said. “Taking the lead after the break got me out of the mix, and meant I wasn’t too worried about what was going on around me.”
Behind her, Hodgkinson was fighting a sprint finish with the chasing pack, including her own teammate Jemma Reekie, who went hard on the final bend, then faded into fourth as USA’s Raevyn Rogers came haring up from seventh to take bronze. But Rogers could not catch Hodgkinson, who won Great Britain’s first athletics medal of the week, and their first in the middle-distance events since Holmes won two gold medals at Athens in 2004. She said the record time meant even more to her than the medal. “That record has stood since ’95, is that right?” she said, “and Kelly is a legend of the sport.”
Holmes had been in touch with her in the past few weeks. “She’s sent lots of messages, words of wisdom, words of belief, it’s great to have someone like her who believes in me like that.” Her season has unfolded faster than her finishing kick. Last winter, Hodgkinson’s plan for this summer was to compete at the European Juniors; like Mu, she has come on in leaps and bounds in the past few months. “It’s been a crazy nine months.”
They have been watching each other’s progress, too. Mu saw Hodgkinson set a junior indoor world record in February, then broke it herself a few weeks later. “It’s crazy that it’s not just one 19-year-old in the race, it’s two, hopefully it makes for a good competitive 10, 15 years ahead, with even faster times on the horizon,” Hodgkinson said.
“Both of us have got long careers ahead of us and probably many more battles to come. Tonight we both just wanted to go out there and put on our best, and we did, and we got a one-two, which is great for girls our age. You know sometimes people tell me I’m too young but no, age is just a number.”
“I most definitely agree with that,” said Mu. “I think that’s something I switched up this year. I used to tell myself that I have many years ahead of me so I can always do it later, but this year I focused more on doing I can do no matter what my age is and no matter who I’m competing with.”
As for that rivalry, well, “maybe a little”, Mu said. “After Keely broke the U20 indoor record I was like ‘mmmm, I need that’, so I think we’re just going to push each other. We’re in different countries, but I’ve been watching her achieve those records, and then trying to replicate that in my own career. Because seeing someone else the same age you do it means you know it’s possible.”
After a night such as this, they both felt like they had the world at their feet. All the challenges ahead of them, the inevitable pressure, the weight of expectation, the distractions of fame, the injuries, the losses, seemed improbably distant, impossibly far-off. And of course you hope it stays that way for both of them, while knowing it almost certainly will not. But for now, at least, all that can wait. “Life is good,” Hodgkinson said with a laugh. “Everything is good.”