“Oh my,” Jake Wightman whispered after pulling off the greatest heist of these World Athletics Championships. “Oh my.” Shock and awe were etched across his face, in those fast dilating pupils and rapidly widening jaw. But could you blame him? The 28-year-old from Nottingham was suddenly coming to terms with his first major global medal. And it was gold.
As the small British contingent in Eugene began to celebrate the country’s first 1500m world title since Steve Cram in 1983, the giant screen at Hayward Field suddenly switched to the stadium announcer. “I have got to tell you why the camera is on me,” said Geoff Wightman, a former top marathon runner and the voice of athletics in stadiums for decades. “That’s my son. I coach him. And he’s the world champion.”
Somehow Wightman held back tears during a moment that was surely unprecedented in broadcasting and elite sporting history. But, as he later revealed, he had been preparing for it most of his life. “I’ve been doing his school sports day since he was about 11 because my wife’s been his PE teacher,” he drolly explained later.
“We’ve just taken it to a slightly bigger stadia, slightly bigger crowds and slightly bigger medals. But it was surreal watching him win gold. I was thinking: I know that guy. He has a familiar look.
Make no mistake, though: this was Britain’s most surprising gold medal in the 39-year history of the world championships. Certainly UK Athletics didn’t expect it. For it had already booked Wightman on a flight home on Wednesday at 6.35pm local time – an hour after the 1500m medal ceremony was due to take place. Although thankfully for Wightman it was hastily rearranged to 30 minutes after his race.
Down the years, everyone knew Wightman had talent – as well as a mulish kick finish. But until now, all he had to show for his efforts were two bronze medals from the 2018 Commonwealth Games and European Championships. He was the Mr Nice and Mr Nearly Man of track and field. Everyone liked him. But no one feared him.
It meant that he started as an outsider in a stellar field that included the Olympic 1-2-3 of Jakob Ingebrigtsen, Timothy Cheruiyot and Josh Kerr – as well as Abel Kipsang, the world’s fastest man in 2022. A year ago in Tokyo, Wightman had finished 10th in such exalted company but in the depths of winter the father and son had concocted a daring plan to toughen Jr up.
It required Wightman to swallow his pride and compete in more cross-country and 3,000m races – events deep outside his comfort zone – so that when he reached this final in Eugene he would retain the strength in his legs and be able to unleash his 1min. 44sec 800m speed when it really mattered. And on a day when the temperatures crept towards the 90s, the plan worked like a beautiful dream.
Wightman retained close contact with the leaders as Kipsang, who had not lost a race all season, led and then slipped back at 700m. It was at that point Ingebrigtsen, the Olympic champion and the fastest man in the field, took over and pushed on. But the pace was never quite quick enough to blunt Wightman’s speed and with 200m to go he struck for glory.
First he flew past Cheruiyot, the 2019 world champion. Then, without breaking stride, he muscled clear of Ingebrigtsen, too. And as he crossed the line in 3:29.23, his father was calling him home. “Jake Wightman has just had the run of his life,” he said, before telling the 15,000 crowd: “My voice has gone.”
Ingebrigtsen was second in 3:29.27, with Spain’s Mohamed Katir third, just over half a second back. The other Briton in the race, Kerr, never quite threatened before finishing fifth. But he showed considerable class afterwards, warmly congratulating his friend as he lay on the track before pulling him to his feet.
“The only point of having a good 800m PB in a race like that is if you are there with 200m to go,” said Wightman, whose win ended a sequence of seven successive golds from Kenya-born 1500m runners. “I knew the odds were getting more in my favor the later in the race it went. I felt strong but Jakob is a beast and I didn’t know if he was going to come back. But it never happened and I’m world champion.”
Later, when asked about how he felt about his father’s commentary, Wightman Jr. smiled: “He can be a bit of a robot on the mic sometimes – some people say robot, some say professional. I hope he broke down today. It will be interesting to watch it back. My mum was in tears, someone was crying!” Wightman Sr’s response? “I have to be impartial otherwise, long after he’s gone, I’ll not be allowed to comment again on the 1500m.”
He also had barely any time to take it all in before he was back commenting on the men’s 400m hurdles final, 15 minutes later, where another Norwegian Olympic champion, Karsten Warholm, was also beaten.
But the pride was clearly evident in his voice when his son finally stepped on to the highest rung of the podium a few minutes later. “Gold medallist, and representing Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Jake Wightman,” he said.
It sounded like he had a lump in his throat. But on a wild night in Eugene he was far from alone.