Jake Wightman can spearhead the next generation of superstar British athletes after a sensational summer of middle-distance running saw him crowned world champion, claims Michael Johnson.
Wightman, 28, shocked the field in July by storming past Norway’s Olympic champion Jakob Ingebrigtsen to take 1500m glory in Oregon having finished a distant 10th in Tokyo last year.
Footage of the Brit’s triumph went viral with dad and coach Geoff providing stadium commentary and Wightman went on to claim Commonwealth Games bronze for Scotland before stepping down to 800m and winning European silver in Munich.
American sprint icon Johnson reckons Wightman’s defining moment can help him carry the torch for British athletics with the likes of Olympic gold medallists Jessica Ennis-Hill and Mo Farah having retired from the track.
“Jake had the best summer of his career, and a lot of British fans are looking for a reason to watch with Mo and Jess are gone, they are looking for that next generation,” said the four-time Olympic champion and BBC pundit Johnson.
“People like Keely Hodgkinson and Jake Wightman are great young athletes who are coming up.
“But for Jake to come in and win that World Championship and have some good competitive 800m races this summer, calls for British fans to say, ‘I’m going to watch – I want to see what he does next.’
“That’s really important for the sport to have those folks that can bring people in, not just because of who they are and that they win all the time, but because they’re competitive in the sport.”
Wightman’s win is exactly the kind of race Johnson wants to see pushed to fans with multiple contenders and guaranteed excitement, rather than just encouraging supporters to attend meets to catch a glimpse of the big names.
He explained: “We tend to look for the Usain Bolt analogy – ‘come watch this, he’s the most amazing athlete and you get a chance to see him.’
“That’s not a competitive story. People love heroes and stars, yes, but what will sustain you as a sport is the competition.
“When we talk about the story it’s the competitive story as well as the athlete’s personal story.”
Johnson was speaking in his role as an ambassador for the Professional Triathletes Organisation at the US Open in his hometown of Dallas last weekend.
The athlete-owned PTO, founded in 2020, is aiming to transform triathlon by professionalising the longer-than-Olympic distance arm of the sport and revolutionising coverage having signed Warner Bros Discovery as global broadcaster.
And Johnson believes his sport could benefit from a similarly assertive and forward-thinking approach to marketing rather than leaving things entirely down to the individuals involved.
The 55-year-old explained: “Some athletes get that they need to be an entertainer to get fans into the sport.
“But I think we need to be careful when it comes to track and field as this sport tends to put the onus completely on the athletes, so they relieve themselves of any responsibility with that.
“That is why I have a great deal of respect for the PTO and these triathletes because there is a true partnership, and the athletes are doing their part with great performances and on social media but also with help to boost that as they can’t do it by themselves.”
Michael Johnson was a special guest of the Professional Triathletes Organisation at the PTO US Open in Dallas. The PTO is a new sports body owned by the athletes and seeking to take the sport of triathlon to the next level. For more information, visit www.protriathletes.org