A few months into 2020, it soon became clear that this would be a year – and an athletics season – like no other.
The coronavirus pandemic has affected almost every industry, every nation and every sport, athletics included. But it has also forced people to think more creatively, and that’s exactly what the organisers of the Bislett Games have done in staging the Impossible Games, set to take place in Oslo on Thursday (11).
Strictly speaking, it’s not a scoring Wanda Diamond League meeting because many of the disciplines have had to be adapted to ensure they adhere to Norway’s current health and safety regulations. But it offers some of the world’s best athletes a stage on which to perform, while millions of fans around the world will be able to tune in to the action.
Pole vault world record-holder Mondo Duplantis, world 1500m champion Timothy Cheruiyot, world 400m hurdles champion Karsten Warholm, world discus champion Daniel Stahl, European 400m hurdles champion Lea Sprunger and double European distance champion Jakob Ingebrigtsen are just some of the big names confirmed to take part.
“I’m just glad to be back competing,” said Duplantis, who managed to travel from his home base in the USA to the Norwegian capital. Last month he tied with 2012 Olympic champion Renaud Lavillenie in the first Ultimate Garden Clash and they will renew their rivalry on Thursday, once again from two different locations.
Lavillenie, competing on the runway in his back garden, vaulted earlier this week. His results will only be revealed as the competition unfolds on Thursday evening as Duplantis and Norwegian duo Simen Guttormsen and Pal Haugen Lillefosse attempt to topple the Frenchman’s best mark.
“It's going to be strange,” said Duplantis. “I don't really know what Renaud is capable of in that scenario. But the unknown is kind of cool.”
“Tomorrow I’ll be at home watching myself jumping against Mondo,” added Lavillenie, laughing at the peculiarity of the words coming out of his mouth. “It will be different to a normal competition because I won’t have the chance to respond to how someone else is vaulting, but it will be really exciting to see if Mondo and the other guys will beat my mark.”
One of the other big clashes of the meeting will be a team event in which the Ingebrigtsen family take on Cheruiyot and his fellow members of the Rongai Athletics Club over 2000m. While Jakob, Filip and Henrik Ingebrigtsen – along with training partners Narve Gilje Nordas and Per Svela – will be running at Oslo’s Bislett Stadium, Cheruiyot, 2017 world champion Elijah Manangoi, African U20 champion Vincent Kibet Keter, 2012 world U20 800m bronze medallist Edwin Melly and Timothy Sein will contest the same distance in Nairobi.
The first three finishers on each team will count towards the scoring, meaning the other team members can be utilised as pace makers or simply as additional opponents.
“It’s going well with our preparation for the race and we are training well to face team Ingebrigtsen,” said Cheruiyot. “There is a difference between Oslo and Kenya and we are hoping to do well. I am happy to race on our home ground. And I hope my team will be the best.”
While the slightly longer distance and lack of altitude play into the hands of the Ingebrigtsens, Filip will be racing on tired legs as he is also set to contest the 1000m, held just 45 minutes before the 2000m.
“My motivation throughout my career has been to challenge myself and to try to do stuff that, on paper, doesn't appear possible,” said the 2017 world bronze medallist. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But it will be fun to try.”
His aim in the shorter event will be to break the Norwegian record of 2:16.78, set by 1996 Olympic 800m champion Vebjørn Rodal.
“I got pretty close to the record four years ago (with 2:16.95), so I’m excited to see how fast I can go tomorrow. It's a Norwegian record that needs improving.”
Warholm is another athlete who will be aiming to get his name in the record books. As the lone competitor in the men’s 300m hurdles, the clock will be his only opponent as he attempts to break the world best of 34.48, set in 2002 by Chris Rawlinson.
“Although it’s a shorter event, it will be just as tough because I’m going to go out even harder than I do in the 400m hurdles,” said Warholm, who last year became the second-fastest man in history in the one-lap event with his 46.92 clocking in Zurich, during which he passed through the 300m point in 33.8.”
There will also be a women’s 300m hurdles race, featuring Sprunger, Olympic silver medallist Sara Slott Petersen and Norwegian record-holder Amalie Iuel. While there hasn’t been any talk about attacking the world best (Zuzana Hejnova’s 38.16), Sprunger will be attempting to do something no other woman has done before: run 13 strides between hurdles.
“This season is completely different than normal, so it’s the right time for me to try something like this,” said Sprunger. “I’ve always wanted to try it, because 14 strides are sometimes too many for me and I end up getting too close to the first hurdle, so I thought, ‘why not try it tomorrow?’.
“I’m not sure I’ll stick with 13 strides long term, because I think it will cost a lot of energy, but it will be interesting to try it in a competition setting. It might be the only time I’ll try it, but we'll see.”
Warholm praised Sprunger’s plan. “I think it’s very ballsy to try,” he said. “It will be interesting to see how efficient it’s going to be. I’ve tried doing 12 steps, but I'm actually quicker when I do 13.
“You never know until someone tries, though, so I think that’s really cool.”
And the same could be said of the meeting as a whole, as many of the disciplines will be staged in a way that hasn’t previously been attempted on such a grand scale.
Other track events include a men’s 25,000m featuring Sondre Norstad Moen, and he’ll be running at the same time – albeit in different lanes – that Caroline Bjerkeli Grovdal attempts to break the Norwegian 3000m record of 8:31.75, held by Grete Waitz. Both events will utilise Wavelight technology to help the athletes stick to the desired pace.
There’s also a women’s 200m hurdles, and 600m, while world champion Daniel Stahl takes on fellow Swede Simon Pettersson and Norwegian duo Sven Martin Skagestad and Ola Stunes Isene in the discus.
It may not be a Diamond League meeting as we know it, but Oslo has done everything it can to make the impossible possible.
Jon Mulkeen for World Athletics