And The Real 2023 World Athletics Athlete of the Year is…

World Athletics couldn't decide who is the 2023 Athlete of the Year, so we did it for them

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Welcome to The Running Conversation, a weekly chat between MH writers and editors about what’s happening in the running world. This week, senior news editor Jessy Carveth and editor Michael Doyle discuss why World Athletics was unable to select just one 2023 Athlete of the Year, and who they would choose if forced to pick just one standout.

Jessy: OK, we’re going to talk about the elephant in the stadium at the moment.

The governing body for road running and for track and field found itself unable to crown a single standout “2023 World Athletics Athlete of the Year” at the recent award ceremony in Monaco. 

Rather than making a decisive choice, they opted to give the award to all six finalists, an unusual move for an organization that oversees elite sport, where it’s not about participation medals and orange slices. 

It’s about one person winning.

The 2023 World Athletics Athlete of the Year went to all six semi-finalists

Michael: And the award goes to… Everyone? That’s not how it’s supposed to work.

So let’s do the hard work for the poor folks at World Athletics who couldn’t make up their minds, shall we?

First, let’s take a closer look at the six winners: 

  • Women’s track: Faith Kipyegon, Kenya, 1,500m/mile/5,000m
  • Women’s field: Yulimar Rojas, Venezuela, triple jump
  • Women’s out of stadia: Tigst Assefa, Ethiopia, marathon
  • Men’s track: Noah Lyles, USA, 100m/200m
  • Men’s field: Mondo Duplantis, Sweden, pole vault
  • Men’s out of stadia: Kelvin Kiptum, Kenya, marathon

Out of stadia.” I love that phrase. I think I’m going to set that as my email reply when I’m on vacation.

As a running-centric site, we’ll narrow our focus to the runners and see if we can help the indecisive folks at World Athletics.

I have a long-standing hot take: track and field should be split apart. Let the field events figure out how to survive on their own merit, and let’s just focus on running. 

It makes zero sense why a governing body, or the entire running industrial complex supporting these events, has to prop up the hammer throw. Although, the hammer throw is pretty cool, I must admit. It’s just a totally different sport than running.

That makes our job here at bit easier. It’s down to four semi-finalists: Faith Kipyegon, Tigst Assefa, Kelvin Kiptum, and Noah Lyles.

Noah Lyles, 2023 World Athletics Athlete of the Year for his triple gold performance at the World Championships in Budapest
Photo Credit: Jen Aragon/Flickr

Jessy: First up: Noah Lyles, the American sprint sensation, had an outstanding year, clinching three gold medals at the World Championships in Budapest. He ran 9.83 for 100m, which was a personal best, and hit 19.52 for 200m. He also anchored the gold medal-winning U.S. 4x100m relay team. 

He’s always been a 200m phenom, but adding that top-end speed and dominating the 100m is essential if he’s got any hope of one day getting himself on the sprinter’s Mount Rushmore. 

Michael: Despite Lyles’ impressive achievements, the shadow of Usain Bolt’s world records looms large. So, for me, although the triple gold performance in Budapest was impressive, it left me longing for more speed. And these events are all about speed.

Bolt’s 100m record has been untouched and will turn 15 next summer. So, cross Lyles off the list?

Kelvin Kiptum crossing Chicago Marathon finish line in world record time
Chicago Marathon 2023

Moving on to Kelvin Kiptum, the marathon marvel who took the world by storm when he conquered both the London and Chicago Marathon Majors

Running two of the top four fastest times in history, Kiptum’s performance is nothing short of extraordinary.  

He’s the first person to run sub-2:01 on a record-eligible course in a real, live race. He did so the hard way, with no pacers after the first half and zero competition shortly after.

In addition, at both London and Chicago, he ran negative splits, meaning he actually got faster as the race got harder. He actually did the same in his debut back in 2022. The guy is Mr. Negative Split.

Jessy: Kiptum’s 2024 spring campaign will be in Rotterdam, which is pancake flat and could produce a scorching time, especially if he catches a notorious Dutch tailwind. 

He’s going to follow it with the 2024 Olympics, provided he gets selected. So if he misses in Rotterdam, his summer in Paris may delay his quest to be the first runner under two hours in a real race.

Here’s the roadblock with Kiptum: he’s still living in Kipchoge’s world.

Kiptum en route to a 2:00:35 world record in Chicago
Photo Credit: Chad Veal

Even though when we look back years from now, 2023 may be seen as the beginning of the “post-Kipchoge era,” where Kelvin Kiptum single-handedly changed what we thought was possible in terms of how aggressively the second half of a marathon can be run, he’s still not Eliud Kipchoge

It’s hard to forget that brilliant run from Kipchoge back in 2019 when he did indeed break the sub-2 barrier. Yes, it was a test event, but it still happened, and the whole marathon world knows it. 

So, for me, until Kiptum (or anyone else) comes along and runs 1:59:59 or better on a record-eligible course (say in Rotterdam or Valencia next year), we’re still just renters in the house that Kipchoge build.

Michael: Also, another quick point: World Athletics hasn’t really defined the criteria for “Athlete of the Year.” 

If we’re purely evaluating performances, Kiptum’s two 2023 marathons are nearly flawless in their execution. 

But if we’re factoring in concepts like the cult of personality, social media reach, and overall cultural influence, Kiptum has a long way to go before he matches the Kipper regarding inspirational Instagram quotes. 

My personal Kipchoge proverb has to be, “I don’t know where the limits are, but I would like to get there.” 

Mind. Blown.

Eliud Kipchoge at the 1:59 Challenge in Vienna in 2019

Jessy: Kipchoge also has this wisdom about him that makes him someone you want to listen to; he’s experienced life. Kiptum is still so new to the marathon world and just doesn’t give off Master Oogway vibes, as Kipchoge does.

Michael: Was that a Kung Fu Panda reference you just slipped in there?

Jessy: Yes, yes it was.

Michael: Well played.

Jessy: But we should give Kiptum some credit. Nike has had him on a publicity tour since Chicago, and his social following has grown like crazy. Some of the Marathon Handbook team even got to meet him in Austin at The Running Event earlier this month. 

I can definitely see Nike thinking about an heir for Kipchoge, someone younger and fresh and exciting.

Michael: Maybe by 2025, he’ll be both Mr. 1:59 and the new Philosopher King of Running? 

But coming back to the bottom line: he didn’t break two hours, and that feels like the big domino left to fall. If he were to have done that in Chicago this year, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

But that didn’t happen. 

Thirty-five seconds is a long time (actually 36, because two hours flat won’t cut it).

Breaking two hours will send the running world into a frenzy, and if he’s the person to do that in 2024, we might as well give him the award then and there. Until then, like with Lyles, I say we cross him off the list.

Tigst Assefa pacing out a huge world record in Berlin
Photo Credit: Igor Calzone

Jessy: Let’s move on to the women.

Tigst Assefa’s Berlin Marathon victory, clocking an astonishing 2:11:53, raised eyebrows and set a new world record. 

Her performance was a seismic shift in women’s marathon running, narrowing the gap between male and female records. She’s now the only woman to have run under 2:12. Actually, no one else has ever run faster than 2:14, as the previous mark was 2:14:04. 

Michael: We were spoiled this year. Two big marathon world records — but if we’re being honest, Tigst’s was far more impressive. Her time would be a men’s national record in 153 countries, including Greece, the birthplace of the marathon.

A bit of quick calculus reveals that she improved the world record by 1.67%. By comparison, Kiptum only moved the needle by 0.467%.

And historically speaking, Tigst’s 1.67% is massive.

In sports science circles, it was long believed that men had a physiological advantage that produced about an 11% difference in performance in the marathon. 

Before the 2023 world records, the gap between Brigid Kosgei (who ran 2:14:04 in Chicago back in 2018) and Eliud Kipchoge (2:01:04 in Berlin in 2021) was 10.62%, so narrowing slightly, but not by a significant margin. 

Tigst’s Berlin run closed the gap with Kiptum to 9.4%. And because the men’s world record at the time was actually still Kipchoge’s 2:01:04, she had the margin at just 8.83%, until Kiptum came along.

Tigst Assefa, 2023 World Athletics Athlete of the Year, in Berlin
Photo Credit: Igor Calzone

Jessy: When it comes to her performance, though, there is this ongoing argument about the role technology played, as she wore Adidas’ new single-use super shoes, the Evo 1. This has certainly cast a shadow over her world record and has been the center of controversy in the marathon world.

Even our shoe reviewer describes them as “defying the laws of physics” and “creepy to have in your hand” because of how light they are

But overall, I don’t think this performance has gotten as much attention as it deserves. 

I think part of it was that it was so unexpected and then was almost put on the back burner after Kiptum’s world record in Chicago just a few weeks later. And I think Kiptum stole the spotlight because he beat the great Kipchoge’s record, so it made it even more of a big deal.

It’s also just more challenging for women because, realistically, women are going to run slower times than men, and most people, especially those who aren’t super into the running world, are going to get more excited by a male marathoner going sub-2 than a female marathoner going sub-2:10 (which I would say is the rough equivalent).

Michael: Now, the problem with Assefa is that, although the amount by which she broke the women’s record is astronomical, like Kiptum, she just missed out on the big number, going under that elusive 2:10 barrier (2:00 for Kiptum).

I think missing that barrier, on top of the amount of critique and controversy her super shoes raised, makes it a bit harder to justify giving her the biggest award a runner could get.

Faith Kipyegon, one of six semi-finalists for 2023 World Athletics Athlete of the Year consideration, in Budapest before winning double gold
Photo Credit: Erik van Leeuwen

Now, let’s talk about Faith Kipyegon, the Kenyan middle-distance sensation. 

Her 2023 campaign was nothing short of historic, setting world records in the 1,500m, the mile, and the 5,000m. 

Let’s look at her CV additions in 2023:

  • 1,500 m: 3:49.11 – World Record (Florence 2023)
  • The mile on the track: 4:07.64 – World Record (Monaco 2023)
  • 5,000 m: 14:05.20 World Record (Paris 2023)
  • 1,500m World Championships, Gold Medal
  • 5,000m World Championships, Gold Medal

Kipyegon’s ability to seamlessly transition between these distances and secure gold in both the 1,500m and 5,000m at the World Championships is unparalleled right now. Usually, an athlete having to try to change gears like this is a kiss of death for dominating at both events. 

Jessy: It’s also so challenging to maintain form and be ready to perform for so many months, but she was somehow able to sustain her fitness from early June through to late August.

The thing that really impresses me about Kipyegon is that the 1,500m and the 5,000m are such different races, physically and tactically.

With the 1,500m, you have to consider there are usually heats, then semis, then finals. That’s three races. It’s one thing if you’re a specialist only competing in the 1,500m, but when you have the 5,000m to think about, you have to run so smart. Fast enough to make the next round or win a medal, but conservative enough to not be burnt for your other event.

Faith Kipyegon at the London World Championships
Photo Credit: Erik van Leeuwen

She was also up against some serious, all-time heavy hitters in Budapest, including Sifan Hassan, who is a similarly talented runner.

Beating the likes of Hassan (who also ran the 1,500m/5,000m double), and multiple fields of specialists at each of these two events, while coming in having run the world record in both is incomparable to any other athlete in 2023.

Michael: It would be like Kiptum or Tigst smashing a 5,000m world record, and then doing what they did in the marathon the following weekend.

Winning one World Championship gold in a middle-distance event on the track is very hard.

It’s running a gauntlet.

Winning two is legendary stuff, particularly when you think of the divide between 1,500m and 5,000m, and all those athletes who are at the apex of each discipline right now, the fields ar just so deep. 

This is why, for me, Faith Kipyegon has run our little gauntlet here, and should be the World Athletics Athlete of the Year. Plus, she wore a dope gown at the awards ceremony:

Jessy: Agreed. Although all the athletes are standouts and had mega performances this year, Kipyegon managed to push the boundaries just a bit further than the others.

See, World Athletics, it can be easier than you made it!

Photo of author
Jessy has been active her whole life, competing in cross-country, track running, and soccer throughout her undergrad. She pivoted to road cycling after completing her Bachelor of Kinesiology with Nutrition from Acadia University. Jessy is currently a professional road cyclist living and training in Spain.

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