Jakob Ingebrigtsen’s showmanship driven by ‘bad’ urge to win

After crossing the finish line on a warm May evening in San Juan Capistrano, finger raised so no one could doubt his victory, distance running sensation Jakob Ingebrigtsen spent the next 45 minutes posing for selfies for dozens of teenage fans .

This was Ingebrigtsen in full, a mix of speed, showmanship and comfort in the limelight that raised the question of nature and care. In his native Norway, Ingebrigtsen was a celebrity for most of his 21 years through Team Ingebrigtsen, a documentary series that followed a decade of rigorous training of his family of runners.

In a country of 5 million people, some episodes were seen by up to a fifth of the population, said Petter Wallace, head of content commissioning and sales at NRK, the country’s public broadcaster, which aired the show. The result of December’s series finale, in which Ingebrigtsen won the 1,500m gold medal in Tokyo last year, had been known for months but became one of the most-watched shows of the series.

“You can’t write something like that,” Wallace said. “It’s like a journey that if this had been a drama series, it probably would have been turned down because it’s too improbable.”

Floating alongside the star, who wasn’t much older than them, with tattoos on his legs and arms and a flawless part in his brown hair, the California teenagers saw what so many of the show’s viewers were doing: A runner hitting the mountaintop of the distance run had reached. But even in a life as public as Ingebrigtsen’s, what no one on the outside could perceive was the inner melancholy he felt at the top.

“It’s really weird,” he said in May, “because I’ve been training for this particular race basically my whole life, so there’s – the peak is really high, but also, right after the peak, there’s a big one Rock bottom because I did it. So what does it mean to go back and train and do all the s— work it takes to get back in the same shape?

“But I’m still competitive and that’s the bad thing for me. I just can’t throw in the towel and say I’m done. I also want to win the World Championship and if I’m that fast it would have been foolish not to go for a record.”

Norway's Jakob Ingebrigtsen wins the Bowerman Mile during the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Oregon in May.

Norway’s Jakob Ingebrigtsen wins the Bowerman Mile during the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Oregon in May.

(Amanda Loman/Associated Press)

There was sometimes the urge to do something else.

“Sometimes,” he said, “I just want to be a mechanic and take care of my dogs.”

Eventually, however, in the months following Tokyo, his supernatural drive to win really got going. The search for what he called his “next mountain” to climb has now brought him here, to a course in the shadow of the Coburg Hills and to Tuesday’s 1,500m World Championship final at Hayward Field, where he won the will take on the track as one of the sport’s leading men who can’t look away.

Ingebrigtsen, who will also race the 5,000cc at these championships, is favored to add another gold medal to an already bright resume.

At just 16, he became the youngest person to ever break a four-minute mile in a 2017 race, also at Hayward Field. His Olympic record time of 3 minutes 28.32 seconds is the eighth fastest of all time over 1,500 meters and his mileage record of 3:46.46 is the sixth fastest.

The fascination goes beyond its speed. When asked in San Juan Capistrano what happened during his silver medal performance at the World Indoor Championships in March, he said he was unlucky to contract COVID-19 just before the race because “I think if I were healthy” , he said, “I would have won by 100 yards.” Three weeks later, after winning the mile by a wide margin in Eugene’s Prefontaine Classic, he said, “You can’t be disappointed when people aren’t better.”

The viewers of “Team Ingebrigtsen” would not have been surprised by such openness. Wallace recalled watching the prodigy at age 12 tell his family he was going to win a world title, “and he was in a family where they believed what he said.” A Norwegian journalist, who asked not to be named, said the qualities were more American than Norwegian.

“They are controversial because in Norway there are athletes [sic] meant to be humble and boring and only say the right thing on TV,” wrote a commenter from LetsRun, a popular running site, in one of the many threads dedicated to “Team Ingebrigtsen.” “Nevertheless, we can’t [sic] Help to be very proud to have such talents.”

Norway's Jakob Ingebrigtsen celebrates after winning the Cross Country Championships.

Norway’s Jakob Ingebrigtsen celebrates after winning the European Cross Country Championships in Ireland in December.

(Niall Carson/Associated Press)

“In a way,” Wallace said, “he has that boyish charm that everyone loves about him. Maybe someone just as bold wouldn’t be liked very much. But he is very loved by the crowd here.”

The TV executive had been skeptical when a production company that had filmed the family for two years approached NRK, a network whose ubiquity Wallace compared to the BBC in Britain. Sports series were not as popular as dramas. But viewers came to devour the intricate, fun, unpredictable dynamic of Gjert, the father and self-made coach, and the mother, Tone, and their seven children in their North Sea hometown. Two of Ingebrigtsen’s older brothers – Henrik, 31, and Filip, 29 – are also international competitors.

Ingebrigtsen described the experience as intrusive but enjoyable, but he also grew frustrated when cameras followed him into his room long after formal interviews during major championships had ended. He had wanted zero distractions.

“We’re trying to rewrite history,” he said in July. “But the first and most important thing is to be hungry. I want to win.”

That was why he stormed into first place at San Juan Capistrano even though he could have rolled on a qualifying time.

“Competitiveness has good and bad sides,” he said. “But I don’t want to lose.”

Cole Hocker, a top American 1,500-meter sprinter, said in May that he hadn’t seen Ingebrigtsen’s documentary series, but legions of American fans and other competitors had. Running message boards are filled with threads linking English-subtitled episodes and pointed criticism of the family’s never-ending ambition.

There was a significant plot twist last winter after the footage stopped rolling. The brothers are no longer coached by their father. The topic can be sensitive. A World Athletics official warned journalists not to bring it up before a Zoom group interview with Ingebrigtsen in July. When asked, he said that Henrik and Filip were heavily involved in his training but that he had the “final say”.

Much of their spring training took place at altitude in Flagstaff, Arizona. From there, Jakob, Henrik and a few other staffers traveled to Orange County for his 5,000 in San Juan Capistrano in May. After he won, he was bullied by another group of teenagers who hadn’t heard him describe so matter-of-factly that his Tokyo gold hadn’t brought the satisfaction he expected.

Perhaps that feeling will change with a second major gold medal at a global championship in as many years. He wants to find out for himself.

https://www.latimes.com/sports/olympics/story/2022-07-18/jakob-ingebrigtsen-norway-1500-meters-champion-olympics Jakob Ingebrigtsen’s showmanship driven by ‘bad’ urge to win

Emma Bowman

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