Jake Wightman’s victory in Eugene speaks to the best our sport can be
Asked on the BBC by Jeanette Kwakye how many times he had watched back his gold medal-winning 1500m race at the World Championships, Jake Wightman’s answer, for all its modesty, was a reminder of the gulf between his participation in athletics and mine.
He had seen it first while in anti-doping after the race, not a place I’ve ever had to go in 50 years of running. The sound had been turned down so he couldn’t hear the commentary from Steve Cram, the only previous British winner of the title. Cram, of course, won the event in 1983 amid a golden era of men’s middle distance running for Great Britain.
And yet asked in an interview for Athletics Weekly, where the most recent leg of his journey to the title began, Wightman said that ‘it had all started on a bleak day in Lanark’ at the National Short Course Cross Country Championships last November.
Jake had come home a disappointing (to him)14th in a race one by another Scottish international, Andy Butchart. By contrast, I had been more than content finishing 340th some five minutes behind him. But then I’m 60 and while I’m a competent enough club runner, I’ve never been anything else. It was also my first season back post-surgery on a knee riddled with osteoarthritis.
He was bang on about the bleakness. Though not the coldest of days, it was unremittingly grey. The race was held on the site of the old Lanark racecourse which had closed 17 years before Wightman was born. Flat as a pancake, it was the perfect venue for a fixture that suits the speedsters. The terrain’s disadvantage that day was that it left us completely exposed to intermittent downpours and a biting wind.
While nowhere near him in the race, I did have the opportunity to observe Jake close up because we run for the same club, Edinburgh AC. There are no hiding places for elite runners at club-based cross-country events. We all have to collect our numbers, pins and chips from the volunteer team managers, and dump our kit bags on the same soggy groundsheet in the club tent.
Such mixing of the supremely talented and those of us whose contribution is better measured by effort is a great leveller by itself. But my impression of Jake on days like that is of an athlete who relishes the opportunity to compete with the rest of us and learn as much from it as a Diamond League event, which we would only ever see from the sidelines.
The previous occasion I encountered Jake was when he turned out for the club at the national cross-country relays at Cumbernauld in 2017. As is customary, the relays were held at Cumbernauld House Park where Clare Grogan and John Gordon Sinclair danced under a tree in Gregory’s Girl.
But although he was already a seasoned global-level competitor, there was nothing remotely star-struck about Jake. As running orders are sorted and declarations entered, relay events can bring out the nerves in the best of us. I threw a wobbly myself at the same event last year when one of my teammates forgot to put his chip on.
But there was no fuss or fanfare about Jake. He was there to take part and get the job done, not just for himself but for the club. If it was all part of a grand plan to achieve greater things, you wouldn’t have known it for a moment.
It came as no surprise to me at all then, that when Jake took his now famous victory — I’ve had it on repeat ever since Jeanette — one theme stood out in the myriad accolades which went his way. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
You might think, given the magnitude of his achievement, that calling him ‘nice’ is damning him with faint praise. And yet the sheer number of people who said it, over and over, only served to illustrate that it was anything but.
‘A remarkable achievement for a lovely man and family,’ read one of many messages that dropped into my inbox the day after the race from someone who knows a thing or two about the highs and lows of elite competition.
The manifest delight across all quarters of the sport, including folk in the club, emanated from a sense that Jake was one of the good guys. And the family angle provided another heart-warming twist.
His dad, Geoff, had been momentarily lost for words in the commentary box at Eugene. Mum, Susan, also in the stadium, admitted in an interview she had missed the last two hundred metres with her head in her hands because she couldn’t quite bear to watch.
Such are the achievements of both parents that you could call the Wightman’s a running dynasty. But the quiet pride of their responses made the moment all the more special. Here were two parents with a son on top of the world, proud first and foremost because he was just that, their boy.
There have, of course, been other worthy successes with emotional backstories at Eugene — Matt Hudson Smith’s bronze in the 400m on the back of a turbulent few years including a suicide attempt, and Laura Muir’s bronze in the 1500m just a few months after landing up on crutches, to speak of just two. Laura too is no stranger to club cross-country events and was the winner of the women’s race on that raw Lanark day in November.
And neither is it the case that athletics is full of bad guys. But the sport I’ve loved for five decades doesn’t have its troubles to seek either. Drugs at the highest level of competition remain a scourge with another crop of competitors suspended for doping violations as the championships began.
Closer to home, athletics has been rocked by a series of shocking revelations about the sexual abuse of female athletes by male coaches in what may very well be the tip of the iceberg. There is no shortage of challenges in the in-tray of Jack Buckner the new chief executive of UK athletics who took up the post this week.
Heavy is the head that wears the crown. Jake now heads to the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham followed by the European Championships in Munich. And another luminary from that previous golden era, Lord Coe, has already tipped him for a historic treble.
Coe could be right, and it would be quite something if he was. But Jake’s GB, Scottish and Edinburgh AC teammate, Josh Kerr, who won an Olympic bronze in Tokyo last year, may yet have plenty to say about that. Kerr had to settle for 5th in Eugene and he’ll be hungry for better as the summer unfolds.
There are moments in life which remind us of the value of evoking our better selves. Jake Wightman’s victory is one such moment. It speaks to the best of our sport, and we’d do well to cling on to it. Being a great athlete is something to celebrate. Being a nice guy to boot is the icing on the cake.