Cathal Dennehy wrote this piece on the exciting rivalry between Athing Mu and Keely Hodgkinson, which will take center stage on Sunday night, August 27, 2023. 

It’s time to find out. Thirteen months on from their last meeting, Athing Mu and Keely Hodgkinson are, at long last, back on a collision course. The meeting the middle-distance world has awaited will happen at 8.45pm in Budapest on Sunday, and it should be a fitting finale to what’s been, to date, a magnificent World Championships.

Mu and Hodgkinson are the Coe and Ovett of the current era, two middle-distance greats who’ve made a habit of only clashing on the big stage when it matters most. They have towered over the event for the past two years, rising to the top of the world while still in their teens – winning gold and silver at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 when they were both just 19.

The battle over 800m, Athing Mu and Keely Hodgkinson, World Athletics Championships
Eugene, Oregon, USA
July15-26, 2022, by Kevin Morris

Hodgkinson has been out there this year, racing on the Diamond League circuit. Mu has not, racing at just two events this summer: a 1:58.73 800m win in New York in June, followed by a runner-up finish at the US Championships over 1500m in July.

What’s her current fitness? No one really knows.

But Mu looked back to her effortless, brilliant best in her 800m heat on Wednesday morning, cruising through 400m in 58 seconds before holding off Natoya Goule-Topping to take victory in a relaxed 1:59.59. Mu took to the track wearing bedazzled Nike spikes, and in her swift trip through the mixed zone – she did not stop to talk – she smiled and said “none of the above” when asked by Kyle Merber of Citius Mag if that had been the work of her or her sponsor, Nike.

Athing Mu, Budapest 2023, photo by Kevin Morris

This brings us to a key point about Mu, who has sometimes shown more desire to pursue a career in modeling than staying at the top of the track world. Her participation in Budapest was in doubt right up until this week, with her coach, Bobby Kersee, telling the LA Times a few weeks ago: “It’s in our control if we decide we’re just going to go ahead and train through this year and focus on next year, then that’s what we’re going to do. The training is going well, but our thought process, openly, is that we’re going to just train here in L.A. for the next two weeks, and the next time she gets on the plane, it’ll either be on vacation or to Budapest.”

There is likely far more to this story than Kersee revealed, given that for 99.99% of world-class athletes, trying to win a world title in Budapest is in no way mutually exclusive with preparing for the Paris Olympics. Maybe we’ll find out after the final on Sunday. Maybe we won’t. But the layer of mystique cloaking Mu’s preparation has added huge intrigue to what will happen when she turns for home in the company of Hodgkinson on Sunday.

Keely Hodgkinson, photo by Kevin Morris

Not that it’s a head-to-head for gold. After all, Kenya’s Mary Moraa beat Hodgkinson in Lausanne this year and beat her at the Commonwealth Games last year. Hodgkinson holds a 5-4 record over Moraa in their careers, though the Brit has had the best results on the big stage.

Mu is 3-0 against Hodgkinson, beating her in the Olympic final, world final, and at the Eugene Diamond League in 2021. She is also 3-0 against Moraa. To establish a truly great rivalry, as Hodgkinson has alluded to in the past, someone has to actually beat Mu at her favored distance.

Hodgkinson and Mu crossed paths on Wednesday morning ahead of the heats. “She jogged past me in the warmup; that’s the first time I knew (she was here),” said Hodgkinson. How did she feel when the story circulated that Mu might not make it this month?

Keely Hodgkinson, photo by Kevin Morris

“It was a bit confusing; we don’t know the full story of what’s going on with her, but I’m glad to see she’s turned up. Hopefully, she’s healthy,” said Hodgkinson. “Whether she was here or not it was still going to be a tough race. It makes it more exciting – more on the line.”

Of course, Hodgkinson knows Moraa is also a lethal threat, particularly if the race goes out slow, given the Kenyan set a 400m best of 50.38 last month. Hodgkinson also made a brief foray into the one-lap event last month, winning bronze at the European U23 Championships in Finland, clocking a PB of 51.76. “It gave me an opportunity to work on my speed,” she said. “It was a good experience; I really enjoyed it.”

Did it have the desired effect on sharpening her form? “We’ll find out in a few days,” she laughed.

Keely Hodgkinson and her fans, photo by Getty Images for British Athletics

Hodgkinson said she is “in really good shape” and will “be ready for a quick, slow race” in the final. “It’s about trusting myself, running my race, and not anyone else’s.”

Her sister and her parents have made the trip to Budapest, seizing a chance they couldn’t in Tokyo two years ago or in Oregon last year. Assuming a safe passage for all the big three through the semi-finals on Sunday, it seems almost certain Mu, Hodgkinson, and Moraa will turn for home, clustered together, in the final.

But who will have the legs when it matters most?

In the past, it’s always been Mu. But Hodgkinson knows this might be the best chance she ever gets.