In the ‘Mile of the Century’, Josh Kerr adds fuel to the greatest rivalry in the Olympic Games

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EUGENE, Ore. β€” With about 700 meters to go in the Bowerman Mile, Josh Kerr, Britain’s top middle-distance runner, has flipped the script on one of the track’s most compelling rivalries. Because there was a message to be sent. Because Kerr had heard enough of Jakob Ingebrigtsen, the superstar from Norway, who declared that he had no equal. Because beef brings something extra out of the competition.

So Kerr made his move early.

β€œI think it scared the coaching staff because they specifically told me not to do that,” Kerr said afterwards. “And I said, ‘When I feel like it’s time, I’ll go.’ … I don’t really listen to other people when it comes to race strategy. I go by my instincts.”

At the start of the second corner Kerr was in the front. He had surpassed the British Jake Wightman. Past American Yared Nuguse. Past Ingebrigtsen. Past the Kenyan Abel Kipsang. Over the final 600 meters, Saturday’s big event and ultimate race at Hayward Field in the Prefontaine Classic, Kerr left his fiercest foe behind him. A refutation without words. He showed off his confidence and training. He challenged the world number 1 to catch him.

Ingebrigtsen couldn’t do that. Not on this day.

Kerr’s 3:45.34 set a new world leading time for the mile and set a new British record. Most intriguing, however, was the new layer it added to the rivalry. Kerr’s move Saturday changed the chess match between the world’s greatest middle-distance runners, heightening the tension when they compete for medals in Paris in August.

What a run by Josh Kerr!

It is a new British record in the men’s mile.#BBCAthletics #EugeneDL

It was Ingebrigtsen’s second consecutive defeat against his fellow elites. So you just know his A-game is coming. The reigning Olympic gold medalist in the 1,500 meters will respond as champions do.

He ran 3:45.60 in Saturday’s mile, his first action since an Achilles tendon injury forced him to skip the indoor season.

β€œI tried to fight him,” said Ingebrigtsen, whose last race was the 3,000 meters at the 2023 Prefontaine Classic in September. β€œBut for me today it was all about time trial. Of course we race, but there is definitely a difference in the approach to this race. For some people, this is their last test, even before the Paris Olympics. But this is not my last test. So it’s definitely a big difference in the way we all see this race. But it’s a good fight.”

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This race was so packed with talent that it was dubbed the ‘Mile of the Century’. Amazon follows Ingebrigtsen with cameras and documents the Norwegian star’s run to Paris. This was the most hyped showdown of the year. The eyes of a global sport were on them. And it was Kerr’s Prefontaine debut.

He made it abundantly clear Friday that he came to the University of Oregon looking for some Norwegian smoke.

β€œI’m not here to settle the tension,” Kerr said. To his left when he said it was: Ingebrigtsen. Kerr’s stern expression and lack of conciliation in his tone showed he had had enough.

β€œI’m here to run a fantastic mile that will hopefully be completed in the century. I’m trying to be the best in the world here. … And if that annoys people or confuses competitors, I’m sure it will, because the whole world is trying to do what I do.

Resolve tension? No. This is the hottest beef since Kendrick Lamar and Drake.

And yes, Kerr listens to Kendrick.

β€œYes, of course,” he said, smiling to confirm he understood the reference.

Kerr intended to ratchet up the tension. He is convinced of his superiority in the discipline. Moving forward so early was the kind of flexibility that fuels this juicy soap opera.

He usually plays the role of the kicker. It is Ingebrigtsen who leaves early and challenges the rest to keep up with him. It’s a power move. If his competitors can conserve energy while he bears the brunt of setting the pace, and they still can’t catch him, that only proves his dominance. But Kerr didn’t hold back this time. He was trying to strike a chord, and it would probably be major.

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β€œI’m having fun with it,” Kerr said. β€œAt this point in your career you’ll always look back and think, ‘Those were the glory days.’ And I know they are now. So I just enjoy it as much as I can.”

It was a stacked field. Prefontaine’s world best time – the best of the calendar year – was 3:47.83 for Nuguse at the Millrose Games in New York in February. Saturday at Hayward Field, Wightman matched that time and finished fifth. Seven runners posted a time under 3:49.

But after three of the four laps, Kerr, Ingebrigtsen and Nuguse had taken the lead. It was emphasized how this trio, on its way to Paris, is the Big Three of the middle distance.

Nuguse, the American record holder, finished third in 3:46.22. He’s definitely the J. Cole in this. Easily the most elated of the trio, Nuguse stayed out of the animosity. He holds a smile worthy of an amusement park, as if it was painted by a caricature artist. Suitable for a future orthodontist. He consumes only positive vibrations. He’d much rather tear down Pokemon or rail against Taylor Swift than get involved in the competitive banter.

Running in the shadows as an underrated threat, Nuguse said, is one of the benefits of all the attention focused on the tension between Kerr and Ingebrigtsen. He believes it makes him dangerous in Paris.

β€œI have always believed that happiness is a stronger emotion than anger,” Nuguse said Friday. β€œEspecially when you’re racing. Anger is something that comes and goes and disappears very quickly. But I think if you really enjoy what you’re doing and have fun, that’s what pushes you to keep moving and what really helps those last 200 meters. I’ve always thought that, and it’s always worked out for me.”

The athletics website Citius Mag has a full timeline of the Kerr-Ingebrigtsen beef, which began in earnest in August 2023.

But for the sake of a crash course, it started at the 2021 Tokoyo Olympics. Ingebrigtsen became a global star when he blew away the field to win gold in the 1,500 meters in 3:28.32, beating Kenyan Timothy Cheruiyot. Kerr used a late surge to take the bronze.

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Then, at the 2022 world championships in Eugene, with Ingebrigtsen still glittering with golden glory, Wightman stunned him in the 1,500 and pulled away in the final 300 meters to take the gold from Ingebrigtsen.

Josh Kerr leads Jakob Ingebrigtsen during the final of the 1,500 meters at the 2023 World Championships. Kerr defeated his rival again on Saturday in Eugene, Oregon. (David Ramos/Getty Images)

This made the 2023 World Championships in Budapest the next big stage for Ingebrigtsen to regain his superior status. But a late surge from Kerr, similar to Wightman’s, pushed Ingebrigtsen to silver again. After losing, Ingebrigtsen said he wasn’t 100 percent, and took some shine out of Kerr’s breakout win.

When later asked if he was looking forward to the rematch with Kerr, Ingebrigtsen revealed he wasn’t fully healthy and dismissed the idea that Kerr was at his level, calling him “just the next man up.”

In November, Kerr fired back. He said that Ingebrigtsen’s ego is quite high and that he had major weaknesses that he could better address, otherwise he would not win gold in Paris.

In February, Ingebrigtsen told a Norwegian-language publication that he would beat Kerr and Wightman β€œ98 times out of 100.”

Two weeks later, after Kerr set a new world record in the two miles at the Millrose Games, Ingebrigtsen – out with an injury at the time – declared that he would have beaten Kerr blindfolded.

In March, Ingebrigtsen declared his rivals irrelevant told The Times UK“The biggest problem is giving people like Kerr attention. That’s what he’s looking for. He is missing something in himself that he looks for in others.”

Yes, the tension has been building for almost a year now. Saturday was not the time to tone it down. But let the feet do the talking. The packed house of savvy race fans at Hayward Field were practically drooling from the palpable excitement. Drama at Olympic level during a Diamond League match. What happened in Prefontaine on Saturday only makes it more exciting when they meet again in August.

β€œSome of my competitors,” said Ingebrigtsen, β€œhave clearly taken a step in the right direction. But not as big a step as might be necessary to become a favorite in Paris.”

(Top photo of Josh Kerr beating Jakob Ingebrigtsen in the Bowerman Mile on Saturday: Steph Chambers / Getty Images)

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