Ryan Crouser and Faith Kipyegon
We continue our countdown to the World Athletics Awards 2021 on 1 December by taking a closer look at the achievements of the five women and five men who have this week been confirmed as the finalists for the Athlete of the Year awards.
Even by the lofty standards that any defending Olympic champion would set for themselves, Faith Kipyegon exceeded all expectations in 2021.
The Kenyan middle-distance runner retained her Olympic 1500m crown in a Games record, set a world-leading time over 1500m, and won nine of her 10 races throughout the year, producing some of the fastest times in history.
She stepped down in distance to the 800m when she opened her season at the Wanda Diamond League meeting in Doha at the end of May, comfortably beating a field of two-lap specialists to win in 1:58.26.
Two weeks later, she contested her first 1500m of the season at the Diamond League meeting in Florence. In another epic clash with arch rival Sifan Hassan, Kipyegon finished a close second in 3:53.91, breaking her own Kenyan record in the process. That was to be the last and only one of her races of 2021 in which Kipyegon was beaten.
One month later, and having had a few races under her belt, Kipyegon gained revenge on Hassan at the Diamond League meeting in Monaco. She kicked hard as she came off the final bend, opening up a huge gap on Hassan to win by more than two seconds in 3:51.07, the fourth-fastest time in history and just one second shy of the world record.
It was the perfect confidence booster ahead of the Olympic Games in Tokyo – not that Kipyegon has ever been lacking in self-belief. Even when Hassan announced that she’d be attempting an ambitious triple at the Games, Kipyegon remained quietly confident.
She advanced through the rounds with ease, winning her heat in 4:01.40 and her semifinal in 3:56.80. But Hassan – the only woman to have beaten Kipyegon over 1500m since the start of 2017 – was on a roll, having won gold over 5000m just four days before the 1500m final, and looked invincible every time she set foot on Tokyo’s track.
The Olympic final played out in similar fashion to the World Championships final from 2019 with Hassan and Kipyegon dictating the pace, keeping the likes of Laura Muir and Gabriela Debues-Stafford at bay. The first 1000m was covered in 2:38.4 and the pace gradually increased as the race went on until Kipyegon made her decisive move with half a lap left.
Kicking hard on the final bend, Kipyegon managed to shake off a fading Hassan as she sprinted to victory, eventually crossing the line in 3:53.11 to break an Olympic record that had stood for 33 years. Muir came through to take silver ahead of Hassan.
“Once I crossed the finish line, it was a very emotional moment for me,” said Kipyegon after becoming just the second woman in Olympic history to win back-to-back 1500m titles. “I thought about my daughter (Alyn) who I left behind at home. She wanted me to bring home a gold medal, and I am so happy and excited I did that.”
Having achieved her fifth consecutive top-two finish at a global championships, Kipyegon didn’t take her foot off the gas. She went on to win at the Diamond League meeting in Eugene, setting a US all-comer’s record of 3:53.23, and then won the Diamond Trophy in Zurich in 3:58.33, once again beating Hassan to the title. Fittingly, she capped her season on home soil with a victory at the Continental Tour Gold meeting in Nairobi.
By the time she wound down her season in mid-September, Kipyegon had become the first woman in history to break 3:54 four times in one year. And although she is better known for being a championship performer than a time-trial runner, the 27-year-old now owns three of the 10 fastest times in history.
“I came back after giving birth and I feel like a role model for the young mothers out there and the young athletes,” she said. “I hope to show them that when you go for maternity leave, this does not mean the end of your career. You can come back strong and win races.”
Where to begin when trying to describe the dominance US shot putter Ryan Crouser has shown in 2021?
His world records – 23.37m outdoors and 22.82m indoors – are probably the best starting point. Both of the previous marks had been set more than 30 years prior.
Or perhaps his performance at the Tokyo Olympics, where he smashed the Games record with 23.30m to win gold. For context, silver medallist Joe Kovacs threw 22.65m – comfortably in excess of the previous Olympic record – but Crouser beat him by a whopping 65 centimetres.
Or maybe his flawless season of 16 victories (including qualifying rounds) is more notable, extending his current two-year unbeaten streak to 27 wins.
But his incredible tally of 22-metre – and now 23-metre – throws cannot be ignored. He racked up 58 throws beyond 22 metres this year alone – more than any other shot putter has achieved across a whole career span, and he now owns the three farthest throws in history.
Crouser started 2021, quite literally, how he meant to go on; in the first round of his first competition of the year, he broke the world indoor record. His 22.82m throw in Fayetteville added 16 centimetres to the record, and he backed it up later in the series with a throw of 22.70m, also beyond the previous mark.
He opened his outdoor campaign with 21.93m, which, despite being a world-leading mark at the time, was the only competition in which Crouser didn’t throw beyond 22 metres. He followed it with wins in Fayetteville (22.69m) and Tucson (22.60m) and then returned to Tucson to throw a world-leading PB of 23.01m – the first 23-metre throw in the world for 31 years.
Crouser didn’t compete again until the US Trials one month later. After breaking the meeting record in qualifying with 22.92m, Crouser smashed the world record in the final with 23.37m, adding 25 centimetres to the long-standing mark.
“I’ve wanted that world record for so long, it feels like a weight has been lifted,” he said. “I've been thinking about this moment since I started throwing. To finally do it is pretty special."
At the Olympics in Tokyo, he lived up to his status as one of the biggest favourites in any discipline and secured gold with an Olympic record of 23.30m. His five other throws in the final – 22.54m, 22.74m, 22.83m, 22.86m and 22.93m – were all beyond the previous Olympic record.
Crouser was determined to win in Tokyo to honour his grandfather Larry, the patriarch of the Crouser throwing dynasty which has spawned three Olympians, who died the week before his grandson left for Tokyo.
After his triumph, Crouser held up a handwritten sign that said: “Grandpa, we did it. 2020 Olympic champion."
“My Grandpa got me started throwing, and he played a huge role in my throwing career,” said Crouser. “To lose him the week before coming to the Olympics obviously was sad, but I feel like he was able to be here in spirit.”
Crouser’s fine run of form continued after the Olympics. Returning to Eugene’s Hayward Field – the site of Crouser’s world record earlier in the year and venue for the World Athletics Championships Oregon22 – Crouser set a Wanda Diamond League record with 23.15m.
Victories in Lausanne (22.81m) and Chorzow (22.39m) followed, then he won the Diamond Trophy in Zurich with 22.67m. He ended his season with a 22.84m triumph in Zagreb.
Whichever way you look at it, Crouser has produced not only the greatest ever shot put season this year, his 2021 campaign could well be one of the best seasons of any track and field athlete in history.