Jake Wightman: ‘I’d never seen my dad break the third wall and say anything about me’

The 1500m world champion on his father’s commentary during his victory, Ingebrigtsen’s reaction and why he hid his twin’s running spikes at school

“I’m glad I just said: ‘Oh my God!’” Jake Wightman suggests as he remembers his reaction when he crossed the line to win the 1500m in a stunning result at the world championships five months ago. “Imagine if I’d chosen to say something a lot worse. In that moment you could say anything, couldn’t you? I could have said: ‘What the fuck?’ and that would have been seen again and again.”

Wightman laughs when I point out that he could have become a permanent meme. “Exactly. Maybe I should have.”

The 28-year-old made the shortlist for BBC Sports Personality of the Year and his victory was a fleeting sensation on social media because his father, Geoff, was the stadium commentator at the World Athletics Championships in Eugene, Oregon. Footage of Geoff standing up while he commentated on the final stages of the race with exemplary professionalism, until he raised his arms after Jake won, went viral. When he became aware that his face filled the giant screen Geoff said, with understated emotion: “I have to tell you why the camera is on me. That’s my son. I coach him. And he’s the world champion.”

It's not every day you call a race in which your son wins GOLD... At the Athletics World Championships no less! 🥇 😍

Stadium announcer Geoff Wightman was on the mic in Eugene to call Jake's 1500m triumph 🎙️#BBCAthletics #WAC2022 pic.twitter.com/Jv8FizMKOd

— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) July 20, 2022

The achievement of Jake, especially in holding off the challenge of Jakob Ingebrigtsen, Norway’s usually impregnable Olympic champion, might have earned even more attention if he had said something colourful and profane when winning. But Wightman is realistic about the limited reach of athletics and more interested in trying to articulate his emotions in that giddy moment.

“It’s surreal,” he says. “In Tokyo I was gutted that I couldn’t turn back the clock and do it again but the race was done [after he finished a disappointing 10th in the Olympic final in August 2021]. At the worlds, it meant I’d done it and no one could change it. Those feelings are at opposite ends of the spectrum. One was complete disappointment and the other was shock and euphoria. The moment I had dreamed of had actually happened.”

Jake Wightman reacts with the words ‘Oh my God!’ on winning the 1500m at the World Athletics Championships
Jake Wightman reacts with the words ‘Oh my God!’ on winning the 1500m at the World Athletics Championships. Photograph: Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

His father, in his role as coach, had sharpened Wightman’s winning mentality. “I said to my dad the day before the race that, ‘because of Tokyo, I really want to get a medal here’,” Wightman recalls. “In Tokyo, part of me blowing up was because I wanted to stay with the leaders to give myself a chance of winning the Olympics. But if I’d hung back I’d have had a better chance of a medal. I said: ‘I don’t want to end up trying to win this and get nothing.’ He was like: ‘Yeah, but how often do you stand on a global final start line and try to win the thing?’ We decided I was going to try.

“Before the race I said: ‘If I’m there at the bell, I’m going to try to get to the front before the last 200m and see if I can hold on.’ The chances are so slim but I felt good and when I went past them on the back stretch I knew it was going to be close. Jakob has never been put in that position so you have no idea how he’s going to react. He might be even stronger and breeze past you, but I knew I’d have given myself a good shot.”

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What did Ingebrigtsen say to him after the race? “He tried to explain what he should have done. I listened and said: ‘Yeah, maybe, but you didn’t.’ He got bad press for an interview when he said something like: ‘It’s never nice losing to someone inferior to you.’ He beat me a month before in Oslo, really badly, but the main thing was that I beat him in the world’s final. He was actually very good to me. He kept saying: ‘You ran well.’ I hope I gained some respect.”

Wightman smiles wryly: “He didn’t lose again the rest of the season and the worst thing is that I poked the bear and he’s never going to let me get into that situation again. So I have to get even better and keep finishing quick.”

Ingebrigtsen’s aura was dented but, as Wightman remarks, “his strength is seen as arrogance but it’s just 100% confidence he’s going to win every race. That’s what makes him so dangerous because every time he wins he gets even more confident. He doesn’t have bad races so to beat him you have to be perfect and that’s probably why he was a bit of a sore loser against me. I’m sure I’ll race him again before the worlds [in Hungary next August] and that will be exciting.”

Steve Cram won the same race in 1983, and Sebastian Coe retained his Olympic title a year later, but the British production line of great 1500m runners dried up until Wightman’s surprising breakthrough. He believes the legacy of doping is a significant factor in the lack of success for British middle-distance runners during a period spanning almost 40 years. “The 1990s and 2000s were pretty tainted for Brits, especially in my event, and there was probably a lot of cheating. It became unattainable for Brits to be able to mix it with [runners who doped] in those eras.”

Is doping still an issue in track and field? “Yes. I’ve not seen anything obvious but there’re always rumours about athletes and normally there’s no smoke without fire. But I bet my house on being clean and in Britain we have always been brought up to play by the rules. I think the main thing is you can still beat [the dopers], even though I’ve always looked at it with rose-tinted glasses and felt that people I race against are clean. But it’s likely that they’re not all clean.”

Jake Wightman with Oliver Hoare of Australia after the 1500m Olympic final in Tokyo
Jake Wightman with Oliver Hoare of Australia after the Tokyo 1500m Olympic final in 2021. The Briton finished a disappointing 10th, Hoare 11th. Photograph: Joe Giddens/AAP

Asked if it is inevitable that some of the leading 1500m runners are doping, Wightman says: “Yes. I wouldn’t want to put a percentage on it, but there must be at least two or three of the top 25. That’s just the way the numbers in the sport work, like the amount of people that get banned. There’s also the sad reality that people who are cheating will go their whole career without being caught. The lucky thing for me is that I don’t know anyone who’s cheating – therefore I don’t have any resentment. You always have suspicions and there will always be cheating but, like I said, we can still beat anyone, clean or dirty.”

Wightman is already locked into midwinter training. He is a little rueful when he says: “I always thought that, if I ever won the Olympics or worlds, I’d love a sabbatical year. But you can’t do that in this sport. That’s the worst bit because you’ve worked so hard to get to that point but you then have to work even harder the next year to push on. But that’s what I want to do so it’s definitely a different motivation.”

He is typically honest when he says: “I don’t enjoy the training but I enjoy competing and trying to win. But to keep my hunger I train with guys that are very good at stuff that I’m not. It’s not a bad thing to get spanked by them. We did a hill session and this woman asked who we were. My mum said: ‘One of them won worlds in the summer.’ The lady was like: ‘Which one of you is world champion?’ When they pointed to me she said: ‘Oh, well done.’ But she’d just seen me running up this hill and finishing dead last. I’m now training with a group [of long-distance athletes] who can help make sure that next year is even better for me.”

His father remains his coach and they meet at least three times a week to work together. “At the worlds he was happy but as soon as I’d finished it, he was like: ‘Right, what’s next?’ So it’s now all about what can I do to win worlds again.”

The close bond between Wightman and his parents, both of whom were elite runners, was obvious at the worlds. Wightman admits he was moved because, “generally, my dad doesn’t show much emotion with my running. So to see that video that Kath [Merry, the former GB athlete] filmed of him commentating was really nice. I wouldn’t have known how he had reacted without seeing that. I know it was huge for him, both as a dad and a coach, to park that moment as the stadium announcer and be personal. I’d never seen him break the third wall and say anything about me as his son. The closest he’d get to it would be to crack a gag that I look like a milkman we once had.”

Wightman rolls his eyes. “I’m just so used to him commentating because he did it at our school race days. We also used to watch the British champs and sit with him in the commentary box. So when I started running at major championships I was so used to him commentating that it never seemed weird. It meant that I’ve never had a coach there because he’s always been working. So I’ve become very self-sufficient and it was also cool because, if I’d had a stinker, he wouldn’t even have seen it as he has to watch the front of the race. He’d have to ask me: ‘What happened, where did you come?’ I’d be like: ‘Good job you didn’t see it.’”

Jake Wightman relxaes at his home in south London
Jake Wightman takes a break from training at his home in south London. “I don’t enjoy the training but I enjoy competing and trying to win.” Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

His twin brother, Sam, used to be one of his closest rivals at school. Wightman remembers once nearly resorting to desperate lengths by hiding Sam’s spikes before they raced. His conscience won out and he returned them before his brother had even noticed. But he smiles when suggesting that Sam, who is an actor now, was similarly competitive when it came to school plays. “When we were in primary school I would never get a good part. One year the school play was The 12 Days of Christmas and the best part was the calling doves. There were four of them and then it went all the way down to the worst part, a piper, which got given to me. It was pretty rubbish. Sam was one of the four calling birds and when they needed another they asked him: ‘Would Jake like to be a calling bird?’ I would have loved it but he said: ‘No.’”

Sam is staying over during the Christmas break and so Wightman calls him in to join our conversation. They are amusing and thoughtful company whether telling such anecdotes or reflecting on life as twins and the contrasting challenges of their different vocations. The brothers plan to start a podcast about being twins next year and, if their 10 minutes together with me is any guide, it will make for entertaining listening.

Wightman’s primary focus, of course, is to try to retain his world title and then chase Olympic gold in 2024. “To be Olympic champion is the one you dream of,” he says. “A sad thing is that the person on the street doesn’t have a clue what winning the worlds means. But everyone understands the Olympics. So it’s a much bigger deal and I’ve shown that I can beat the field I’ll face at the Olympics. That is the one thing that keeps my motivation so high.”


Donald McRae

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