Deji Ogeyingbo wrote this thoughtful piece on the tragedy of Athing Mu and the absolute wealth of talent on the US team. A good read on the US Olympic Team, headed for Paris 2024. 

Athing Mu’s fall and the inconvenient truth

Track and Field fans are obsessed with statistics. Here’s one to kick off this piece. Since Athing Mu won her 800m Olympic Gold in 2021, she has only raced twice outside the United States. Once in the 400m in Peru and the other in the Rome Diamond League in Italy. Of course, this statistic doesn’t include the world championships in Hungary in 2023, a tournament she had to be in by getting a bye as the defending champion. But we will get to that in a bit.

Mu is arguably the most prodigious 400m/800m/1500m runner in the sport’s history, as evidenced by her record-breaking feat before age 22. However, for a sport that puts so much emphasis on the world championships and the Olympic Games, the American has found a way to duck racing in events for most of the year leading to these events. There are obvious consequences to these. Primarily, it’s hard to judge your shape in terms of time and, most importantly, gauge yourself against your competitors.

In essence, you leave things to chance. In this case, you depend on your superhuman abilities to bail you out when race day comes. Most times, it works out; other times, it leaves you shattered and tearful. For Mu, the latter was the case at the US Olympic trials; the rules couldn’t have been bent to accommodate her after she fell in the final of the women’s 800m.

The lasting image of these trials is undoubtedly seeing a tearful Athing Mu, who finished last after falling on the first lap of the final in Eugene, the premier venue for track and field in the United States. Despite her undeniable talent, Mu’s inconsistent participation in competitions raises questions about her commitment and preparedness.

While she had battled back from injury and taken a self-imposed break to rekindle her passion for running, her sparse competitive schedule left her ill-prepared for the rigors of top-tier events. Her impressive win in the semi-final showcased her potential, but her lack of consistent competition may have contributed to the disappointing outcome in the final.

Her Coach, Bobby Kersee, said Mu got clipped by another runner on the backstretch of the first lap, which caused her to veer to her left and tumble to the ground. In the end, after a failed appeal, he stood by the words he had reiterated for over 30 years of his coaching career.

“I’ve coached, preached, and watched it,” Kersee said. And here’s another indication that regardless of how good we are, we can leave some better athletes’ homes than other countries have. It’s part of our American way.”

Athing Mu, photo by Chuck Aragon for RunBlogRun

The results-based, top-three format of the American trials system is many things: cruel, fair, occasionally random, and certainly dramatic. Dreams can be dashed quickly by a single misplaced step or a toe over the wrong line. The intensity and pressure of the competition add an element of unpredictability that keeps both athletes and spectators on the edge of their seats.

Despite its harshness, the system’s appeal lies in its impartiality. It always feels better (and makes for better television) to leave outcomes up to fate rather than a selection committee. This method ensures that only the best performers on the day make it through, emphasizing the raw essence of competition and the spirit of the sport.

So what next? Mu’s talent is unquestionable. Her 10 fastest times are comfortably under 1:58, including a national record of 1:54.97 set last fall at the Prefontaine Classic. She would have been the absolute favorite to defend her title in Paris, although World Champion Mary Moora and British phenom Keely Hodgkinson would have had a huge say as they had beaten her one time or the other in the past.

In her absence, the United States will be represented by Juliette Whittaker, who did not break the 1:59 barrier until the final on Monday, where she secured third place with a time of 1:58.45. Whittaker, a rising star who recently clinched the NCAA championship for Stanford, faces a challenging path to an Olympic podium in a few weeks, requiring a strategic race and perhaps a bit of luck.

Nia Akins takes the 800 meters, June 24, 2024, photo by Chuck Aragon, for RunBlogRun

Nia Akins ran a brilliant personal best of 1:57.36 three years after her fall to win her second straight US title and stamp herself as a medal contender in Paris. Allie Wilson, who made her first Olympic team at age 28 after taking a huge risk entering 2024, qualified with a season’s best time of 1:58:32, hitting the Olympic standard.

The US has an embarrassment of riches all around, and although they will miss Mu in Paris, they will no doubt make up for it at other events. No country comes close to the embarrassment of riches it has in all the events. Last time out, Sha’Carri Richardson got suspended, and although it paved the way for the Jamaicans to sweep the women’s 100m in Tokyo, it surely spurred Richardson up to become a new beast. Mu will learn from this and improve for the Los Angeles 2028 Games.